Vacancy – 1.04

nostalgia-635619_1920Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading from the beginning here.

The guests were so packed with energy that Lorelei thought the whole room might break off and fly away from the manor. They were only six and on average stood level with her, well, hips, but their voices were deep and personalities huge.

Ziah gave a short welcoming speech and quickly directed them to the table so that in a matter of seconds they were seated and skewering hunks of meat and bread with whatever pointed utensil was closest. She explained over their rumble the origin of the cider, and they each took a stein to their lips. The room went silent as cups were drained then slammed onto the table, the group erupting in a raucous cheer, reaching past one another to pour themselves more.

“Lass!” the first who’d introduced himself to Lorelei turned from his seat and motioned to her, his accent even thicker than Seamus’s, and his smile wider. “You muss hava draught o this!” He offered her his stein, tiny eyes twinkling in a sea of bushy, chestnut hair.

She glanced at Ziah who was shaking her head, then back at the man, “No, thank you, but I can’t.”

“Aww,” he cocked his head, the two braids of his mustache swinging down into his great beard, tied off at the end with a green cord, “Come on, now!” He wore a suit with blue pinstripes, a yellow vest beneath, and one of his ears glittered with hoop piercings down its outer rim. He had small, round features enveloped in dark brown hair that was pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck.

“That’s very kind, but–” and then her stomach took that very inopportune moment to growl loud enough to be heard over the racket of the room.

The man shouted with glee, and a few of the others followed suit. He slipped down from his chair and waddled over to her, pushing her onto the bench beside his own seat. Lorelei shot a wild-eyed look at Ziah who was smirking, but just as she crossed her arms and leaned back, another of the men grabbed her elbow and dragged her to the table as well.

“Here, have that, lass,” the little man pressed a fork into Lorelei’s hand, a hunk of meat covered in a white, steaming sauce on its end. She looked to Ziah for permission, but the woman was busy trying to get another to stop pouring her a stein. Seamus sat at the head of the table and was already indulging himself. With a shrug, she popped it into her mouth, and the man cheered. “Now it’s a real party!”

Senses overwhelmed, Lorelei lost track of time. There had been singing, some even in languages she recognized, but mostly the sounds of foods being devoured and approving words. Eventually, Ziah stood, “Gentlemen, if you’ll please excuse us, we’re going to check on your rooms.”

The men let out a dramatic, collective groan, and Ziah hiccuped, then they cheered once again. Lorelei popped up from the table, or tried, the weight in her belly almost pulling her back down. As Seamus distracted them, the women slipped out the door at the room’s end, and Ziah fell against it with a sigh.

“Dwarves,” she moaned quietly, “they’re exhausting.”

“Dwarves?” Lorelei looked up and down the little hall they’d entered into, but it was empty, “I don’t think you’re supposed to call them that.”

“Hm?” the woman blinked as if seeing her for the first time, “Oh, no, probably not human ones.” She pushed herself off the door and began walking at a quick pace again.

Lorelei followed and they came out into the main foyer again. Grier leaned against the counter, still human, but perked up when he saw them.

“Stay,” she said to him, pointing to the desk, “and not a word to anyone about–” she motioned to Lorelei, “or so help me…”

“You’ll what?” Grier raised the brow over his whitened eye.

She grimaced, “You won’t like it.”

“Try me!” he shouted after her, but the women were already halfway up the stairs.

Ziah pressed a small, gold button set into the wall at the head of the stairs. She leaned into the grate above it, “Bur, how’s it coming?”

There’s was a shuffling sound from the other end, a knock, a yelp, then a small, feminine voice squeaked back, “How do you think?”

Ziah made a face at Lorelei, “Come on now, your team’s the best there is. It can’t be that bad!”

The voice grunted, “Well, of course!” Ziah winked. “But we could use some help. The dragon suite. Can you get that one for us?”

“Anything for you, dear.” The woman shrugged, motioning to Lorelei that it would be easy.

“And you know the Blue Room is empty, right?”

Ziah paused, opening and closing her mouth, “Yes, um, leave that one as is for now.”

Down a hall and up another flight, they came to a wing a bit grander than the others. Double doors lined the corridor, and each had different etchings running along the frames. They came to stop before a room with flames carved into the wood.

“I can’t remember who stayed here,” Ziah fished in her pocket and pulled out a key, “but this should be a breeze.”

The smell hit them first–wet, hot, rotting–and Lorelei gagged, her overly full belly even more of a burden. She feared looking in, but couldn’t look away once she did. A thick, green pus coated the surfaces, flecks of something yellow and metallic suspended within. Steam rose up from the floors, and the constant drip of water came from somewhere deep inside the room.

Lorelei’s jaw dropped, “How?”

“You don’t want to know.” Ziah trudged in and assessed the mess further, “We’re going to need a very large bucket.”

The woman showed Lorelei the best way to scrub to remove the goo, and side-by-side they worked their way around the room, Ziah mumbling something about trickery, and how she should have suspected this. They stripped the bed and Ziah loaded Lorelei up with the linens and towels, the foul, hot smell enveloping her. She found her way down the hall to a laundry chute at its end, and with one free finger, pulled the little, metal door open.

A beam of light shot out from the darkness, and she jumped back, the door snapping shut, the linens tripping her. Planted on the ground, she pulled them off her face and looked up and down the hall, but the light was gone. On all fours, Lorelei crept back to the chute, carefully pulling it open at arm’s length. There was a dull glow inside, and then in the midst of the light, she could make out a tiny face connected to a tiny body, the whole being no taller than her hand. It scowled at her and spoke, “Rude.”

Lorelei squealed and jumped back again, but this time the door was caught open, and the being flitted out by way of a pair of iridescent wings. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“B…bedsheets?” Lorelei barely mustered, pointing to the green-stained linens all over the floor.

The tiny person’s face went red, and she sped past Lorelei so close she felt the wind off her wings. She turned to follow, then stopped, unable to leave the linens strewn about. After a long look to be sure it was empty, she shoved them down the chute and ran back to the room to find the tiny woman hovering just before Ziah’s face. They’d been trading angry whispers but stopped when she entered.

“You can’t say anything.”

“I’m not going to have to,” the winged woman spat out, “You can feel it pouring out of her!”

You can feel it,” Ziah dropped the last of the cleaning supplies into the bucket, “but not everyone’s as sensitive as your kind. And there’s a lot of energy in the manor, Tuatha, so I think for the time being–”

“You’re underestimating Arista,” she took a tiny finger and poked Ziah on the nose so that the woman gasped, “You know that, don’t you?”

Ziah glanced at Lorelei then took up the bucket, “You can finish in here?”

The flighted woman nodded, and Ziah walked out. She had so many questions, but her host seemed too overwhelmed for any of them, so Lorelei silently followed her down to the foyer again where Grier snapped to attention and started whining about hunger. Ziah dismissed him with a little muttered apology and stepped behind the counter herself. “Oh my gods,” she held up the lilac paper Lorelei had placed on the desk hours before, “Where did this come from?”

“An older lady gave me that for bringing her things down,” Lorelei motioned to where the boxes had been stacked, “She must have left.” When Ziah didn’t respond, Lorelei went on, explaining sheepishly how she helped the woman and how she’d ended up outside.

“Well, here,” Ziah offered it to her.

“What is it?”

“Your first tip, apparently,” then Ziah gasped, “Is it really noon? The rest should be here any second and their luggage! Damn it, Grier! Why can’t he remember anything? Why can’t I remember anything?” She slammed her hands down on the desk and bit her lip in that way again, distress creeping into her eyes, the sure air about her from before unraveling.

Lorelei felt a heaviness set in her own chest at the look the woman wore. “How can I help?”

“You’ve done enough,” she said quietly.

“Please,” Lorelei leaned into the counter, “I want to help.”

The door opened, a bright light pouring in on them. Short guests speaking over one another piled into the entryway, their voices filling up the space.

Ziah snapped her head to Lorelei, “Go out to Ren, take the cart, get the luggage, bring it back here.”

“Oh, uh, yes!” Lorelei stood a little straighter, “I can do that!”

“Good,” Ziah nodded, the circles under her eyes a little deeper, “Oh, and, if you could, please tell Ren I’ll, um, need his assistance tonight.”

“Sure,” she smiled and waited, but when the woman said no more, so stuttered, “So I’ll just say you need his help for…?”

“He’ll know,” she yawned then waved her away.

Lorelei turned on her heel and hurried back through the dining room and out onto the porch with the barn in her sights. She knew she couldn’t let Ziah down.

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Vacancy – 1.03

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

Lorelei came to with Ziah’s hand pressed against her face. Her brow was furrowed with worry, and she bit a pouty lip. Straw slid under her hands as she tried to push herself up, and Ziah helped her lean against a pole in the barn.

Seamus’s voice echoed, sounding far off, “Oh, gods, have we broken her?”

“No,” Ziah spoke in a hushed tone and brushed Lorelei’s hair away from her face, “Not yet.”

“I’ve seen that before.” Lorelei focused on the boy standing over Ziah’s shoulder. He wore a slightly annoyed look and save for his dark hair falling in shaggy curls about his face, the teen looked nothing like a dog. A long scar ran from his forehead down to his cheek, the eye in its center milky, distorting the pupil. He snarled, “That’s a human, isn’t it?”

The woman shook her head, “She’s not staying, don’t worry. I know people come here to get away from her kind.”

Lorelei felt nauseated, but not at a loss for offense, even if she had no idea what they meant. She tried focusing back on Ziah, the woman’s mass of black hair haloing around her like a great shadow, but she couldn’t muster any words.

“You like humans well enough,” Seamus said with a little laugh, and Lorelei could make out his pudgy form standing behind Ziah.

“Sure I do,” the woman fanned at Lorelei’s face, “but it’s a unique sentiment to have around here. She can’t hack it, I mean, she fainted at the sight of Grier.”

“Yeah, but that’s what happens to all the ladies,” the boy grinned, squatting down next to her and sticking his nose inches from Lorelei’s, “You wanna scratch behind my ears? It really gets my foot thumping.” She tried recoiling, but instead just banged her head on the pole behind her.

Ziah grabbed the front of his shirt and shoved him with a force that shocked Lorelei, throwing the boy so that he skidded backward in the hay. She acted as if she had exerted no energy at all, “If Seamus would have just let me memory blot her to begin with, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Now it’s going to be doubly hard.”

Lorelei’s vision finally stabilized, though now her head throbbed. She saw the tall man, Ren he’d been called, come to stand beside Seamus. Pushing silvery hair behind an ear with one hand revealing its length once more, he held the newly-hatched creature with too many limbs in his other, “I’m no apothecarian, Ziah, but memory blotting is said to be very dangerous, not to mention that’s not exactly your forte. What do you plan on doing with her after?”

Ziah glanced over her shoulder, “Well, send her on her way, of course.”

“To where?” His voice was flat, and he stood very still. “She may not remember where she was going or from where she came.”

“Well, that’s the idea.”

Before she came to us.” The creature he held made a little but piercing chirp.

Though Lorelei thought she might like to forget from where she’d come before the manor, she didn’t dare say that aloud. When Ziah looked back to her, her eyes were hollow, her skin a bit sallow, and the smile she had worn the night before was gone. She was still beautiful, but she looked as though she had weathered a great storm.

“There are side effects as well: sudden blackouts, long-term memory loss, personality changes,” he looked down his long nose at Lorelei, “It seems you would be possibly wrecking one of the…acceptable humans and sending her off into danger. Perhaps we should consult Conrad for an alternative.”

“No!” Ziah cut the air with her hand, “No one else can know about this,” she glared at the boy who was still picking himself up off the ground, “Enough already do.”

“The manor did open itself up to her,” Seamus ventured carefully, clasping his hands before him, “Maybe, well…she can’t be all human, can she?”

“I don’t know,” Ziah growled from the back of her throat, and Lorelei could have sworn she saw a flicker of red flash in her dark eyes, “It’s your manor, don’t you know?”

He laughed, “Oh, dear, no: I don’t pretend to know what it’s thinking.”

The woman rolled her eyes and mumbled something less than complementary as Seamus went on. Ren’s voice hummed another suggestion, and Grier leaned in to Ziah and began to complain that he could be trusted with secrets as he told her one he’d never shared before. Their voices stacked atop one another until Lorelei could understand none of it. With a groan, she sat up a little straighter, “Um, excuse me?” When they only got louder, she cleared her throat and tried again, “Is anyone interested in what I’m thinking?”

All four sets of eyes fell on her and as they went silent, she could feel her heart thumping against her chest just as the hatchling had done earlier. “Well, uh,” she swallowed, “I was thinking I could stay.”

“Splendid!” Seamus threw his hands up and clapped Ren on the back. The tall man’s face changed, nostrils flaring and lips in a snarl, but only for an instant.

“Lorelei,” Ziah spoke very carefully, putting a hand on her shoulder, “What do…what do you think is happening here?”

Lorelei looked from Ziah’s otherworldly beauty, to the seven plus foot man with pointed ears, to the man with a flame-colored goatee, to the scarred boy who had only very recently been a dog. She squinted, “Aliens?”

The boy immediately burst into hysterics and threw himself onto his back again. Seamus chuckled and Ren’s lips may have even twitched, but Ziah cocked her head, “Would you be okay with that?”

“Well,” Lorelei thought a moment. The place was obviously secluded and perhaps even unreachable by anyone else. It was almost ideal if not for the nagging feeling that its inhabitants might permanently damage her in trying to get rid of her. She swallowed, “You haven’t, like, vaporized me yet. So yeah, aliens are fine.” The woman’s face softened, and Lorelei saw her chance, “And you have that open position. You said you need someone, and I need a job.”

“Well, we’re not aliens,” Ziah laughed lightly through her nose, color coming into her cheeks, “And it’s not quite as easy as that.”

“Sure it is!” Seamus leaned forward, grabbing Ziah’s shoulders, “You’re hired!”

The woman shook him off, “Gods, Seamus! And what’s Arista going to say?”

Suddenly, the look on his face ran away, and he fell into a shadowy grimace, “Didn’t think a tha…”

Lorelei screwed up her courage, pushing herself up onto her knees and with Ziah’s help came to stand before them. “Look,” she narrowed her brow, making her best serious face, “I can’t go back to where I came from, and I…I don’t have anywhere else to go. I don’t even,” she felt a sudden wave of sadness as the words came, realizing the truth for the first time, “I don’t even have anyone to tell anything to, so your secrets–government experiments, mutants, whatever–are safe with me.”

They were left in a somber silence. The girl looked at their faces again, an odd mixture of guilt and unease across them. Any fear she might have felt before at their strangeness left her.

“Ziah!” A small voice sounded from the yard as the girl from the kitchen came jogging up to them. Her face was red and eyes watery, and she grabbed the side of the barn with a huff, “Some of the men from the convention are here.”

Ziah’s eyes widened, “The convention,” and she slapped her forehead.

“They’re kind of grumpy.” Hotaru bit her lip.

The woman rolled her eyes, “Of course they are. Grab some cider, the strongest stuff, and bring it to the white room.”

“How many bottles? There’s six of them.”

“Twelve.” Ziah changed suddenly, her voice less ragged as she focused on those around her, “Grier, help her, and on the way let Bur know we’re going to need those rooms a lot earlier than we thought, probably in about three hours. Seamus, you can keep them distracted for a few minutes, right? Don’t mention that they’re early, just be your charming self. Ren, can you grab a sample of the latest harvest, and get it to the white room? No greens; root veggies and stuff we can ferment only. Then, um, make yourself scarce. And if anyone hands any of you a rock, just take it: trust me.” The group looked at her with wide eyes for a moment then she huffed, “Well, get going!” With that, they scattered.

“And you,” Ziah rounded on Lorelei and she stood very straight in response, “I need your help.”

Ziah’s long strides were difficult to keep pace with as they crossed the yard to the side porch of the manor. They entered into a short hall that lead to a storeroom filled with foods, but swept by too quickly for Lorelei to take note of anything but a spicy, earthy smell, like freshly cut grass sprinkled with paprika. The kitchen lay on the other side where the chef was leaning over a large, bubbling pot. “Aoyagi-san, can you whip up something meaty in a hurry?”

“Oh, little girl is back,” the chef pointed his ladle at Lorelei, thick brown gravy flicking off its end, “but she’s not got my eggs, still!”

Ziah ignored him, rummaging around the shelves, “Maybe like a fondue situation?”

“You sure about that?”

The woman revealed three loaves of crusty bread, “If it’s hot they’re less likely to throw it.” Then, she slung the loaves at him.

Aoyagi grabbed each out of the air in succession, holding all three up. That’s when Lorelei saw, he had three–no–four arms. But there was no time to react, as Ziah rushed her out of the kitchen and through a side door into another hall, and, really after seeing a dog turn into a boy, what was a couple more arms? From somewhere on the other side of the wall, a chorus of gruff voices sounded, but Ziah was undeterred from her course, taking them around a corner and into another room.

The white room was just that: white. Its walls were bare above dark wainscotting and save for some rather sad, folded furniture stacked in the corner, it was empty. “The tables, set them up in a long row just here.” Lorelei didn’t hesitate to oblige and went for the furniture, but the moment she touched them she was zapped.

She recoiled, stuck her finger in her mouth, then shook her head and went for them again. Again, she felt electricity, but this time it buzzed through her, almost pleasantly like the nighttime hum of a car’s backseat on a road trip. The two moved the pieces into the room’s center, circling the table with simple foldout chairs. It was not a very impressive sight.

“Good,” Ziah nodded, though Lorelei thought it was nothing in comparison to the colorful, eclectic dining room she’d been in earlier. “Now stand back.” Beside the door they had entered was a single light switch, though the room had no fixtures. “We’re looking for something rugged, sturdy, just very…masculine.” Then she flipped the switch.

The room came alive with a jolt through the air. Light flashed before them, and a sound like crumbling buildings emanated from behind the walls. Lorelei froze, and the room around her moved. The white plaster replaced itself with rough-cut stones, vines crawling in through their cracks. A massive, iron fixture formed on the ceiling and thick, yellowed candles on it sparked to life. The tables shook, growing sturdy, dark legs covered in knotted bark, and iron bars grew from the backs of the chairs into rough angled shapes.

Lorelei blinked. She wanted to again touch the table, to feel the wood and know it was real, to run her hands across the walls and pluck a leaf off the vines, to scratch at one of the bowls laid on the table and smell the clay, but Ziah’s voice broke her just as she was about to take a step. “Too rugged,” she said to, apparently, the room, “Maybe take it back a notch.” She flipped the switch again.

The air sizzled, the walls cracked, and there was another blinding light. The stone on the walls crumbled away into dust, leaving behind a pink floral patterned wallpaper. The plates replaced themselves with delicate, white pieces, fluted champagne glasses and gold utensils on either side. Lacy tulle shot out  from the ceiling in swooping pastels and the faint sound of birds floated somewhere in the farthest corners of the room, but none were seen.

“Very funny,” Ziah smirked, glancing at Lorelei, and she returned it. “It knows what I mean. Once more, shall we?”

With a final flip of the switch, the room changed again. This time, a deep maroon color dripped down the walls, painting over the pinks, and landscape paintings and ancient weaponry expanded from nothingness to hang there. The tables twisted into a sturdy oak, and the chairs melted together into communal benches with intricate carvings of deer and evergreens. The champagne flutes shifted themselves in steins, and at the far end of the room there was a pop and a stone fireplace roared to life.

“That’s more like it.”

Of course there were no words, and even if she could find them, Lorelei knew she couldn’t muster the voice to say them. Instead, she blinked, felt her heart pound, and knew, at the very least, the people she’d met today were probably not government experiments. This was the kind of technology that should have already been monopolized upon.

The door behind them opened, and Hotaru and Grier entered with armfulls of thick bottles full of a buttery-colored liquid. “Bur’s a little pissy.” Grier told them as he placed the bottles along the table.

“Yeah, well,” Ziah shrugged, “what else is new? Go on out front and start taking their things upstairs. Hotaru, Aoyagi-san should be cooking us up something.”

“Right,” the small girl, who Lorelei looked at closely but only noted two arms, nodded and slipped back through the door with Grier right behind her, both nearly knocking into Ren’s towering figure.

The man handed off the basket he carried to Lorelei, and she wobbled to stay on her feet under its weight. Inside, it held potatoes, apples, red and purple berries, and a handful of other unrecognizable chunks she assumed were edible. There was a little screech and from Ren’s shirt pocket and the creature she had hatched popped its head out. Ren gently pushed it back down, but gave her a knowing look before disappearing again without a word.

Ziah directed her to place the basket on a side table and help her uncork the bottles. When she caught a wiff of the liquid, her knees went weak and she had to grab the table to sturdy herself. Ziah laughed, “Yeah, don’t drink this straight. One part to ten parts water, for you.”

Lorelei nodded, and Ziah stared back at her. She looked as if she might say something when Hotaru slipped back inside pushing a cart covered in trays of cut up meats, breads, and cheeses, and three steaming pots of heavenly smelling goo suspended on racks over stubby candles.

Just as the woman finished directing them to arrange the food on the table and Hotaru wheeled out the cart, the sudden rumble of voices came from behind the door on the far end of the room. An Irish lilt could be heard amongst them, coming closer by the second.

“Here we go.” Ziah grabbed Lorelei’s elbow and pulled her to the back of the room, far from the door.

“Don’t be too surprised, now.”

The door burst open, and there stood Seamus, smiling broadly, but he was alone save for the thunderous voices that surrounded him. Just as Lorelei was sure that the guests were invisible, she caught a glimpse of something scurry along the side of the table and then, in a flash, a man no taller than three feet was extending a hand up to her.

She started, then quickly took it, his grip firm and nearly pulling her downward as he shook, “It’s a pleasure, lass! Now, what’s to eat?”

Vacancy – 1.02

peacock-feathers-1312509_640Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading from the beginning here.

Lorelei sat straight up at the sound. She blinked cloudiness from her eyes then finally found a clock that told her, after much squinty deliberation, it was just after five. The knocking, however, did not cease now that she knew just how early it was, and she looked to the door from where a voice came, “Lorelei? It’s Ziah. Are you up?”

She mustered an answer, reaching up to her hair and tightening a loose ponytail. Sliding from the bed and brushing escaped brown strands from her face and sleep from her eyes, Lorelei staggered to the door and cracked it open, “Yes?”

“Lorelei!” Ziah beamed at the sight of her, her toothy grin much different from the simple, sultry smile she wore the night before, and she pushed the door open on the girl, “Good morning, sleepyhead!”

“It’s kinda early,” Lorelei leaned against the frame and yawned, “What’s going on?”

“You said last night that you wanted to get an early move on this morning.” She nodded vigorously and reached out a hand, “Remember?”

Just before she grabbed her, a man appeared behind the receptionist and took her shoulders, “Morning!”

Ziah jumped at his touch then twisted around, “What do you think you’re doing, Seamus?”

“What?” he made an exaggeratedly pained face, speaking in a thick Irish accent, “I just wanted a look…”

Ziah snapped her head back to Lorelei with another smile, but there was darkness in her eyes, “Come on, I’ve got some food waiting for you and–”

“No, no, I didn’t say I wanted to get up early I–” another yawn caught her mid-sentence, and Ziah took the moment to interrupt her.

“Well, lots of paperwork to fill out! Come on downstairs with me,” she went to pull Lorelei out into the hall, but the man pushed past and thrust his own hand into hers.

“Hello there, young miss,” they shook and Lorelei felt her whole body wobble from the force, “Sleep well, didja?”

“I was…”

“Come on,” Ziah slipped into the room and grabbed Lorelei’s bag, pulling the door closed and forcing them all out into the hall, “Let’s go downstairs, shall we?”

Dim candlelight lined the passage as it did the night before, but there was a different glow now suggesting early morning was readying itself to break through the window at the end of the hall. The man, Seamus, was staring at Lorelei with small, twinkling black eyes, flanked by wrinkles. He had graying sandy hair, but his goatee was the color of flames. They began down the hall to the landing at its end. “Tell me, where are you from, Miss? How did you get here? What lead you to our humble inn?”

Before Lorelei could tell him of the sign on the main road, Ziah grabbed his arm and pulled him a step back, “Excuse us.” She wrenched him into the room Lorelei had just so comfortably been sleeping in, shutting the door behind them. Lorelei stared back from the outside of her room, alone with the candlelight dancing across the rose-colored rug that lined the wooden floorboards.

“You what? That’s brilliant!” Seamus’s voice hooted from behind the door, and Ziah could be heard shushing him. Lorelei leaned in and could just make out the woman’s rushed whispers,

“She can’t! She’s sweet, but Arista would kill me! You too! Had I known I would have just told her we were full, but it’s not supposed to work like this.”

From the other end of the hall a loud thump sounded, and Lorelei jumped. Then there was a voice, tiny and quivering, “Oh, dear.”

Lorelei went toward the sound, turning at the hall’s end to see a stack of boxes floating toward her. She stopped short then saw the tiny legs below them. The woman carrying the boxes stacked well above her head meandered dangerously close to the stairs, teetering to the left, bumping into the wall and bouncing back to the right.

“Let me help you,” Lorelei called out, dashing over and taking the boxes. Two bright blue eyes sparkled from the aged face she revealed, especially youthful below two heavy lids, surrounded by folds of crepey skin and dark brown spots, and flyaway grey wisps stuck out from below a hat adorned with peacock feathers.

Lorelei lead the way down into the foyer, her box-laden amble downstairs almost as slow as the elderly woman’s even more careful steps. “Just by the entryway here, dear. Yes, thank you.” Her voice was like a worn record as she directed Lorelei who eased the boxes down with a bit of a struggle. She huffed as she stood, blinking the last of the sleep out of her eyes, and glanced about the foyer quickly. The ceiling was high, at least two stories, and a great chandelier she hadn’t noticed the night before hung from its center. It glittered black against what seemed to be lit candles, balls of wax rolling down their white sides, but she knew had to be as fake as those in the upstairs halls.

“Here you are.” The old woman pressed a dollar into Lorelei’s hand, and though she protested, the woman toddled off as if she hadn’t heard, which may have very well been the case. Lorelei looked down at the dollar then squinted. A vine-covered building was painted in lavender on the bill. It looked foreign, but hardly mattered to her, as she dropped it onto the counter she had registered at the night before.

“Excuse me, Miss.” A deep, masculine voice resonated from the front entrance. Startled into muteness, Lorelei stood frozen before the mass of a man that took up the whole of the double door frame. His unseasonable coat and black derby hat hid any features in shadows and bristly black hair. “Could I persuade you to take these to your caretaker? I’d see him myself, but must be off.”

More than a command than a request, the enormous man pressed three round objects into the stunned Lorelei’s hands and immediately strode back through doors he had entered a moment before. She glanced down. Eggs, three of them, pink, looked back. At least she felt as though they were looking back.

Lorelei spun around, but she found herself suddenly alone and the foyer all too quiet. Springing toward the door the old woman had disappeared through, she entered into a large room scattered with mismatched tables, square, round, hexagonal, amorphous, each covered in cloths of varying colors and pattern. There was a door at its opposite end, and she made for it, her charges still clutched in her hands, but a familiar voice broke her stride. “Oh, dear, some tea would be rather nice, if you would please.”

The woman was nearly hidden at a table near the front window, her feathered hat blending with the turquoises and violets of the wallpaper behind her.

“Oh, of course.”

Lorelei didn’t know what she was doing: she certainly didn’t work here, and from what she had heard Ziah say, she wouldn’t be, but something compelled her to help this woman. She continued through the swinging door on the opposite end of the room, still tightly grasping the eggs, and came to a stop. Though she could only see two people, the kitchen was bustling with life. Steam issued from numerous pans upon a long set of burners, the sound of a grill, running water, and some incomprehensible shouting filled the over-stuffed room. It smelled wonderful–no horrible–perhaps both, like a garden, and like a brewery all at once. Her eyes watered and mouth salivated.

“I need eggs!” A short man with a curt mustache shouted from the kitchen’s center amid chopped ingredients and flying knives.

Lorelei gulped, eyeing the stocky, dark-haired man who was only dwarfed further by his tall hat, “Excuse me, sir, but where is the tea?”

“Tea?” he shouted, suddenly looking up and trapping her in his intense, black eyes, “You’re in my kitchen, you work for me now! Get me eggs!”

Lorelei whimpered and almost obliged him, though she had even less idea where she would find a carton of eggs than a pot of tea, but a metallic racket shocked her out of her trance. On the floor beside the chef, a girl was splayed out, silver and copper pans littered all about her. Lorelei held her three, small charges against her chest with one hand and fell to the floor to assist the scrawny, apron-clad teen and the short man shouted at bullet speed in a language Lorelei couldn’t place beyond Asia.

The girl mumbled a thank you, her dark, straight bangs falling into her eyes as she scurried off to re-wash the pots. “Hotaru is so clumsy,” the short man laughed, “She’s no good, she’s only got two arms!”

Lorelei got to her feet, but a sudden poke at her chest made her recoil. Glancing down, one of the eggs began to vibrate, clinking against the others. She took it up between her fingers and thought she felt, for a second, a tiny thump from inside the shell.

“Ah, my egg!” The chef snatched it from her hand and raised his arm to break it into the steaming pan of boiling doom below.

“No!” Lorelei rescued the tiny pink vessel and cradled against her chest again.

“Well, where’s my eggs then?” The man returned to chopping at a rate unlike Lorelei had even seen, as if he had extra hands.

“I don’t know seeing as I don’t work for you! Now, where is the tea?” she found herself saying with more intensity than she thought able.

He stopped, glared at her, then smiled, “For you, the tea is there.” He pointed with his blade to a table by the swinging doors she’d entered. Rolling her eyes, Lorelei took it up in one hand and went back through to the old woman. With the sounds of the bustling kitchen behind her, she took a deep breath and caught the peacock lady’s eye. For the moment that she crossed the odd dining room with the tray in hand, the spice of freshly brewed tea wafting around her, she couldn’t help but smile and offer her a few kind words, “How are you today?”

“Oh, much better now,” she replied like crinkling leather.

Lorelei leaned over the table, pouring the tea carefully from the silver pot, having never done so before and praying silently that it wouldn’t spill as wisps of steam rose from the cup.

“A bit of milk would be nice,” the woman said in a way that Lorelei couldn’t possibly say no to, and she proceeded to pour carefully. “You know, I thought I was going to have a terrible day this morning, just awful, but it certainly isn’t turning out that way at all. In fact, I may be headed home tonight after all.”

“Oh, that’s good.” Lorelei tried to listen as the old woman continued, but the tapping between her palm and chest suddenly intensified. The once perfectly round, pink sphere was now chipped, a small chunk hanging off and revealing the dark insides of the egg. Her eyes widened as she saw something small and matted poke out through the hole.

In her distracted state, Lorelei had failed to realize that the teacup begin to overflow. She quickly ceased pouring and tried to sop up the spill with a bright blue napkin, but the old woman didn’t seem to notice, continuing on happily, “I’ve just come from France, you know, and that was just after Egypt, oh but not before Brazil. My, was it humid there, but the flora! My dear, rain does have a way of making the most beautiful things happen, doesn’t it?”

Lorelei smiled distractedly, assuming the woman was at least a little confused and perhaps recalling times when she was a bit more spry, and she slipped the second cup from the tray to try and re-pour the tea correctly. Leaning closer to the cup, she lifted the silver pot and began again, the amber liquid swirling and steaming in the cup, until a pink flake fell into the brew. Lorelei squeaked quietly in the back of her throat at the sight of the bit of eggshell floating peacefully in the sea of tea, but, again, the peacock lady was oblivious, “…always loved the Thames, of course, it’s more built-up now than it used to be, but…” and she quickly scooped the shell out with her finger, glancing back down at her chest. Something like a tiny snout poked out from the hole in the shell and opened its mouth, letting out a garbled screech.

“Oh, my–”

“Yes, yes, I know! But that’s what they said and I haven’t been back to Utah since!”

Lorelei offered a nervous laugh, placing the teapot back on the tray, then something speared her finger, and she couldn’t contain a yelp.

“Oh,” the woman craned her neck toward the eggs, apparently seeing them for the first time, “looks like you’ve got something special there.”

Lorelei glanced down at the contented, little face of the strangest, soggiest creature she’d ever seen, then to her finger, “It bit me!”

The old woman chuckled, leaning a bit closer to it, “Better get him to that nice, tall fellow out back.”

“The caretaker?”

“Yes, I believe so. Seen him handle quite a few different creatures now.” While Lorelei wondered just how many unruly pets guests brought to Moonlit Shores Manor, she hustled toward the door the woman had pointed to and found herself on a shaded porch looking out onto a vast lawn bordered by trees in dawn’s muted light. Set down by the woods, a barn stood, a shadow disappearing through its entrance that she knew had to be the man she was looking for.

“Excuse me!” she shouted, running across the lawn, the tiny creature squeaking up at her. The building was long and narrow and smelled of hay, open at both ends so that the man standing in the breezeway appeared as a silhouette. His height seemed impossible, and it was only exaggerated by his lanky frame.

“I, uh, have…” she lost her train of thought as her eyes adjusted to the light. Sleek blond hair fell on either side of his features, long and pointed, and his skin was so pale it almost glowed. He was strikingly handsome, but had an oddness that unnerved her, and she stumbled over her words, before simply holding out the eggs.

Without a word, he came up to her, at least two heads taller than she, and bent down to look. The cracked egg was now almost completely apart, revealing a wet ball of matted fluff that looked like it had too many appendages to be anything from earth.

He looked on in awe then blinked grey eyes up at her, “From where did it come?”

The silky voice made her waver a moment. “Um, just a man in the hall. Said to bring them to the caretaker.”

He narrowed his eyes then and, to Lorelei’s shock, tossed the other two eggs over his shoulder.

“What are you doing!” she almost went for them, but he held out a hand and she stopped. The eggs landed and cracked with two sharp bangs, sparks and black smoke shooting from them.

Lorelei screwed up her face, looking back to the man. She watched him run long fingers against his scalp, pushing back his silvery hair, and she gasped. The man’s ears curled upward and came to pronounced points, but were covered again too quickly for her to be sure of what she saw. He spoke again, “Could I, please?”

She nodded slowly, slipping the creature into his outstretched hands.

“There you are!” Ziah’s exasperated voice came from the end of the barn. The woman strutted in, Seamus just in tow with a great grin across his face. Ziah’s already furrowed brow only worsened when she took in the scene before her, “What’s going on?”

“This human has just brought me a winged cabbit.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Lorelei pinged her eyes back and forth from the tall man’s stoic look to the horror that began to crawl across Ziah’s face at his words. “Did you just,” she laughed nervously, “call me a human?” That phrase seemed eerily familiar to her, and her head felt dizzy for a moment.

“Of course,” the man stood to his full height again, towering at least seven feet, “Why is there a human here, Ziah?”

“Damnit, Ren!” the woman slapped her forehead.

The newly born creature suddenly let out a triumphant squawk from the man’s hand as it completely loosed its shell and unfurled two wings, shaking out its feathers and sitting up on four tiny feet.

Lorelei made a sound in the back of her throat, wishing she could lay down and run away all at once.

“It’s not so bad,” Seamus shrugged with a smile, “At least we’ve still got her here!”

They all stood in silence a moment as the morning sun began to light up the yard. In the dawn, a shadow was bounding across the yard toward them. Ziah’s eyes widened. She shouted at the dog to stop, but it came just up to her, its tongue hanging from its mouth. It looked harmless as it planted itself in the straw beside her until, suddenly, it was no longer a dog at all, and in its place stood a boy who spoke in human words from a human mouth, “Is this a meeting no one told me about? I wish you guys would stop leaving me out of stuff!”

No one spoke, but Ziah and Seamus snapped their heads toward Lorelei expectantly. She could feel her mouth hanging open, but could do or say nothing.

“Oh man, I just forgot again, didn’t I?”

Lorelei’s vision tunneled and she felt herself fall.

Vacancy – 1.01

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

 

I just need somewhere to stay.”

It’s not a very consequential thing to think, I just need somewhere to stay, especially if one were in the position Lorelei Fischer was, driving almost blindly down an unfamiliar, unlit, unstraightening road while torrents of rain pelted her windshield, but Lorelei had had the good sense, or perhaps just the dumb luck, to speak this thought out loud. Words have more power when spoken aloud, they’re all about intent, you see, and maybe Lorelei knew this somewhere deep down in a dormant hidey-hole of her unconscious, or maybe some otherworldly power had coaxed the words out, or maybe our heroine just had a bad habit of talking to herself. Whatever the reason, she did articulate that desire, and at that moment a sign appeared at the very farthest reach of her high beams, flailing in the storm’s gales.

It was a rickety, old thing, wooden with chipping paint, and if it hadn’t been for a perfectly timed moment of abnormal stillness in the rain and wind, and another lustrous strike of lightning somewhere in the distance, Lorelei would not have been able to read the elaborate lettering:

Moonlit Shores Manor
For The Weary Traveler

And the very fortunate, smaller sign that clung just below on two thin chains:

Vacancy

She slowed immediately, turning down the gravel drive just beyond the sign. Moonlit Shores Manor sounded like a perfectly acceptable place despite that it was out in the middle of nowhere with almost no advertising. She navigated the narrow pathway in the dark, thick branches overhead shielding her car from the worst of the rain. Maybe the place would be run by a tiny, wrinkled woman and her gaggle of cats, she thought, taking another turn, the road so far behind she’d forgotten it. Maybe there would even be cookies. Lorelei felt the tension leave her body, if only for an instant, at the mere thought of chocolate chips, then every muscle tensed again at what she came upon.

Moonlit Shores Manor was, in fact, an immense, daunting, hulk of a place, impossible to take in with one glance. It towered over her, its many stories disappearing into the black sky as she peered up through her car windshield between torrents of rain swept to the side by tiring wipers. She made out its wood-paneled face and a pair of windows, elaborate molding sinking down over the glass like the heavily-lidded eyes of a skeptical stranger. Looking rather like it had skulked straight out of a horror film, Lorelei contemplated the place and her choices, but the rain, you see, funny as it always is, was the deciding factor. A pair of doors were just beyond the reach of her headlights, and though she was at first apprehensive, the relief of finding somewhere to stay, the sleep in her eyes, and the chill in the car forced her out into the storm, across the gravel walkway, and in through the great entrance.

Wind caught the door, slamming it behind her, the echo rattling through the foyer. Outside, the storm raged, but the sudden quiet shot though her like a cold lightning strike. Whether it was the massiveness of the entryway, or the disturbing shadows the dual staircases at the ends of the room cast, Lorelei felt her stomach flip over as she dripped on the wooden floors and clutched her bag to her chest.

When no one came, she took a few steps deeper into the entryway, wondering exactly what time it was as she hadn’t thought to check. To the left, an archway lead into a sitting room, a fire crackling at its far end. Someone sat in a rocker, their silhouette illuminated by the dull flames. She crept up to the back of them, her mouth dry, unsure what to say.

“Hello there!”

Lorelei jumped, turning to see a shadow in the archway she had just come through.

“Welcome, welcome,” the woman motioned to Lorelei to follow her back into the foyer, “I’m sorry; it’s so late I didn’t think anyone would be showing up–and in this weather–but we’re always open!”

Lorelei cleared her throat, glancing back at the form in front of the fire, apparently undisturbed, then returned to the entryway. Nothing like how she’d imagined, this woman was young and gorgeous, though the word barely did her justice. Tall, with great bunches of black hair that trailed over her shoulders and stopped at the small of her back, she floated to the counter in the foyer and pulled her silken robe a bit tighter.

“Storm’s nasty,” she flashed Lorelei a knowing look, her heavily rimmed eyes sweeping over her soaking form, “Thought about doing something about it, but so many are from all over, they like the change. They say it’s soothing!” There was a crack of thunder then and the foyer lit up with a blinding whiteness for an instant. Lorelei gasped, and the woman chuckled, a comforting, throaty sort of laugh. “Are you from around here?”

Lorelei shook her head, “A little ways west.” She pointed over her shoulder as if that told the whole story and immediately felt like an idiot.

“Ah,” her smile was warm and sincere, “Well, do you have a reservation?”

Lorelei’s heart dropped right into the pit of her stomach and, had it been feasible, a resounding splash would have echoed throughout the manor. Her face must have fallen as well because the young woman only smiled more comfortingly, if that were possible, “Oh, you don’t need one, we’ve always got room, but some folks like to call ahead. So,” she started rustling papers under the counter, then ducked beneath it, “You’re…?”

“Lorelei–” she answered, but was immediately interrupted.

“A Lorelei?” she popped back up and placed a book on the counter, “Well, I’ve never met one before.”

“Yeah…” Lorelei watched her shuffle through the papers in the book, pulling out loose ones and stuffing them back under the counter distractedly, “Fischer.”

“Well, there’s some paperwork,” she flipped through more papers then sighed heavily, “I’m so disorganized, Arista’s always reminding me…Have any pets or other live creatures to declare?” Lorelei shook her head, and the woman continued more to herself then to her guest, “Oh, lovely; Ren will appreciate not being woken up, the grumpy bastard. And Grier, well, ha,” she chuckled to herself, “You should have seen him with the direwolves last–oh, damn, where is it?”

“I’m sorry,” Lorelei took a step back from the counter, guilt swimming in her stomach, “I know it’s late.”

“No, no,” she smiled again and waved at her, “It’s just that we lost our other receptionist over a month ago, and I seem to be falling behind more than I’m catching up,” she giggled to herself in a weary sort of way, “You’re not looking for a job are you?”

Lorelei stood quite still and blinked down at the mess the woman was still shuffling through. It was weird, really, as she stood there staring at the complete stranger in the dead of night in an unfamiliar, almost spooky place, during a frightful storm and soaking wet, how wonderful she suddenly thought it would be if she could stay there. Genuinely stay there. Her whole chest warmed at the idea.

“What am I saying?” the woman suddenly broke into laughter and dropped a second massive book onto the counter with a resounding slam, “You’re on vacation, and here I am trying to rope you into work! My apologies!” She thrust a pen into Lorelei’s hand and pointed at the top of the page she’d opened to, “If I can just get you to sign in, we can sort out everything else in the morning. I bet you’re exhausted.”

Lorelei realized just how drowsy she felt at that moment and could hardly focus on the roster she was signing. She squinted down at the words, written in the same elaborate script as the sign outside, only much smaller: Name; easy enough, Race; what? She squinted harder and realized it must have said Date, scribbling “August 12”, Mode of Transport; weird, but alright, then finally Reason for Visit.

She pondered this for a quick moment: why was she here? Well, she had driven there, an entire day’s drive really, and there had been that sign. But why was she driving? The image of all her family and friends in one big room suddenly filled her mind, their countenances annoyed, growing into bewildered, then finally horrified, and she just as quickly shook the image away and scrawled “vacation” in the space.

“Right then,” she glanced at the roster for a split second, “Oh, a car?” Her eyes lit up as they fell on Lorelei again, “How contemporary of you!”

“I guess?”

Drowsiness beginning to settle on her, Lorelei followed the woman up the creaking staircase to the catwalk above the foyer and down a narrow hall. What looked like real burning candles dimly lit the way in a pleasant, warm glow. She almost reached out to one, but stopped herself–they couldn’t be real, of course, that was just her sleepiness getting the best of her.

The woman took her down another corridor all the way to its end, stopping before a door with a blue stone embedded above the lock and revealed a key from her pocket. She plunged the sapphire-colored bit of metal into the lock and swung the door open.

The room was pitch dark, save for two tiny spots of light that Lorelei could have sworn she saw, but disappeared as soon as her escort walked in. “Breakfast’s between seven and nine in the dining hall, just off the entryway, but I’m assuming you’ll sleep in, poor thing, so I’ll make sure Ando’s around to make you something else to eat.” She flicked on a light and the room filled with a warm glow. Everything, the rug, the comforter, the armchair, seemed to be a slightly different shade of blue. “Is there anything I can get you tonight before I leave you?”

The words hung on her lips, and Lorelei found herself watching them for a minute longer than what she knew was socially comfortable. She shook her head, feeling the warmth in her cheeks.

She shot her a fantastic grin and stepped out, slipping her the sapphire key as she passed her, “Well, if you do think of anything, I’m Ziah. Goodnight.”

“Wait.”

Ziah stopped on the threshold, glancing back over her shoulder.

“Um,” she was a bit embarrassed suddenly, but forced herself to speak, “Were you serious? About needing someone to work here, I mean?”

“Oh, well, yes, but,” she shifted in the doorway, appearing uncomfortable for the first time, “I didn’t mean to offend you. I do apologize.”

“No,” Lorelei put up her hands, “I’ve just been looking for a change and, ya know, if you’re taking applications…”

“I do get a good feeling from you,” she crossed her arms and leaned against the doorway, taking a long look at Lorelei. “I would say think about it, but now I’m feeling I’ll hold you to it come the morning. Absolutely no one has applied. There’s a process, of course, but if you still want the position, I can most likely make it happen.” She squinted, pursed her lips, then grinned again, “We’ll talk in the morning.”

Lorelei stared at the door as it closed and continued to stare long after. Had she really just offered to take a job here? Where even was here?

She felt compelled to take a few steps back, knocking gently into the bed and dropping down onto it. Lavender rose up to meet her from the downy comforter, a shade of light teal. “What am I doing?” Her voice sounded far away, and her eyelids were too heavy to keep open.

Then, a noise sounded from the corner of her room. She couldn’t move, a mixture of concern and overwhelming fatigue grounding her to the bed, but she listened very hard. Something scurried, or fluttered–she couldn’t tell–across the room. This place was old, she reminded herself, and it was probably only a mouse which, at this point, she didn’t care if it climbed under the covers with her, as long as it let her sleep. Lorelei felt herself slipping into that state between reality and dream, remembering Ziah’s words, “Lorelei…never met one before,” and managed a meek laugh.

The rain pelted the window above the bed in a steady hum. In her mind she heard distant voices as she slipped into a dream. It was something she was used to at this point in her life. She always heard far-off, ambiguous voices when on the edge of sleep, as if her dreams were rehearsing. There was quiet laughter, then an even quieter gasp, some whispering, and she thought she even felt a tiny wisp of breath on her ear. Then something happened that Lorelei was not used to: one of the voices rang clear: “Oh, my, Bur, this one…she’s…oh! She’s human!”