Vacancy – 1.19 – More Fun In Packs

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

V - 1.19

Manning the front desk had been easy, almost boring, that morning, and for that, Lorelei was thankful. She’d checked in a pair of dwarves on their honeymoon who she recognized from the convention, and twin vilas with white-blonde curls and thick eastern European accents. They were all still on high alert since the break-in of mysterious motive, but without a single hiccup all week, Lorelei was feeling particularly pleased with herself, and though the past month had been the strangest of her life, it had also been the most rewarding. Habian, the black-haired, dreary-faced fairy that was under permanent employ at the manor, had just brought her a ring to add to the lost and found box, and he hadn’t even changed her hair color or stolen her lunch this time. She smiled to herself at the small victory as she locked the ring away in the office when she heard the front door open.

“Good afternoon, how can I he–” Lorelei’s voice was caught in her throat when she saw him.

With golden skin and black curls, he sauntered across the foyer all smiles, honey-colored eyes set on Lorelei and unwavering. He clenched a perfectly sculpted jaw, only enhanced by rugged stubble, and stared down a long, slender nose when he made it to the counter, “Well, I’ve not seen you before.”

His tone was smooth, immediately sending a shiver down Lorelei’s spine. She stood up a bit straighter, and cleared her throat, “Uh, haha, yeah, hi, I’m new.” What an idiot, she thought.

“Yes, you certainly are.”

Lorelei suddenly felt her tongue was too big for her mouth and couldn’t swallow, “I can, um, grab Ziah if you want?”

“No, no, that won’t be necessary,” he purred leaning forward, “I want you.”

“Oh, Jesus,” she heard herself saying before she could stop.

“Far from it,” he managed a dry laugh then smirked, “I’m hoping you can help me secure four rooms for two nights.”

“Of course,” Lorelei fumbled under the counter for the book, slamming it down so loudly that she scared herself. She flipped to the current day, a birds-eye layout of the manor spread out on the page, “I’m assuming you’ve stayed here before? Could I have your name?”

“Malachai.” Of course it was.

She picked out an empty block of rooms and wrote his name into one of them. The wet ink swirled around on the page, spreading out across the diagram of the four rooms, changing the shape of the map ever so slightly and filling in extra information about the returning guest.

“And may I ask yours?”

Feeling already wobbly in her knees, she told him.

He extended a hand to her, and she took it clumsily. His voice was like butter, and Lorelei wished she were bread. Toast, specifically. “It is so very nice to meet you, Lorelei.”

At the sound of her own name on his lips, her spine shivered once again, and she gripped the edge of the counter to keep from turning into a complete puddle. It was then she noticed that three others were with Malachai. Tall and lean, two women and a man meandered in the foyer, all dark-haired and warm-skinned, and Lorelei gaped at herself: had they been there all along?

She finally released his hand, but instantly regretted it. His skin had been soft and warm and her own longed for it to return. She looked down at her hand, a little shocked at herself, then back up at the others. One of the women had come over to the counter and was leaning against it. She bit a lip so full Lorelei thought it might burst, then winked at her, “Don’t worry, he has that effect on everyone.” She nudged him with her shoulder, and the two exchanged playful glances.

“And we need to keep an eye on Mr. Elkin’s griffin bec–NO!”

Ziah had entered the foyer with Grier at her side. The moment she saw Malachai, the color drained from her face, and Lorelei could have sworn her eyes flashed red.

“Ziah!” the other, younger woman ran up and threw her arms around her, but Ziah kept her eyes locked onto Malachai. She took a long, deep breath and rubbed her temple, “Oh, brother.”

“That’s me,” he grinned at her, and she glared back.

“Lorelei,” Ziah’s face was a mixture of frantic, overwhelmed, and a bit disgusted, “This is my oldest sibling, Malachai.”

“Oh, we’ve met.”

“I’m sure,” she scowled at him and motioned to the woman hugging her, “And my baby sister, Farrah.” Ziah released her and came around the counter to stand very close to Lorelei, “And Altair and Kamille, right in the middle.”

“So these are all your siblings?” Lorelei realized then she should have known, seeing them all together: the resemblance was striking. “Your family is ridiculously good looking.”

They all laughed, even Ziah, but in low, sultry tones that made her feel like she was in on the joke. But Ziah was quick to stop, “What are you doing here? And with absolutely no notice?”

“It’s my first hunt!” Farrah’s face lit up, and she licked her lips. Lorelei couldn’t imagine any of them with shotguns, knives, or even hiking boots.

“You know,” Malachai winked, “It’s more fun in packs.”

“You’re done with school?” Ziah was eyeing Malachai, but speaking with Farrah.

The girl rolled her eyes, “I’m turning in my thesis next week.”

She glared openly at her brother, “This celebration seems a little premature then, don’t you think?”

“That’s exactly why we’re here,” he told her with a smirk as if she should have known.

Ziah paused, looking them all over, then relented, “Fine. Some of you might remember Grier,” she pointed to the boy standing in the doorway, his mouth abnormally shut, “He’ll show you to your rooms.”

“Your friend,” Malachai nodded at Lorelei, “I’m sure she would be willing to show us where we will be spending the night, no?”

“No.” Ziah was quick to respond, “My underaged bellhop will be more than happy to do that instead.”

As Grier very nervously picked up some of their bags and began to lead them up the stairs, neither he nor Lorelei bothered to correct Ziah about his age. Malachai lingered as the others passed, frowning, but even that was attractive, “I trust you do know where my room is?”

Lorelei could feel herself blushing down to her feet and quickly turned her eyes away. He chuckled and disappeared to the second floor.

“Gods,” Ziah grumbled, “He always does this.” She slammed her hand onto the open ledger and scowled down at it.

“Surprises you?”

Ziah scrunched up her face, “Mal has slept with every single one of my assistants: Robina, Ainsley, Michael, Gretchen.”

“Michael?”

“And now you!” she threw up her hands.

“Oh,” Lorelei felt both a pang in her chest and a sneer cross her own face, “We only just met. But, what, this is some game he likes to play?”

“It’s not a game,” she rolled her head back, “He’s just trying to…to prove something to me.”

Lorelei couldn’t see how the situation had to do with Ziah, “I don’t understand.”

She flipped absently through the pile of outgoing mail on the counter, “No, you wouldn’t.”

“Because I’m human.” Lorelei crossed her arms and glared at her.

“Oh gods, it’s already starting.” Ziah took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She placed her hands on Lorelei’s shoulders, her voice sweetening, smile widening, “Lore, I didn’t mean anything by that, okay? My brother just puts me on edge, but I shouldn’t take that out on you. I’m sorry.”

Lorelei suddenly felt light and almost flustered. She giggled, warmth returning to her face, biting her lip and nodding. Then she pulled back, recognizing how similarly she felt to when Malachai spoke to her. She squinted at Ziah, “Yeah, it’s fine.”

“Just be careful around him, okay? Don’t let him trick you or–”

“I’m not stupid,” she said a bit more forcefully than she meant. Ziah nodded and shuffled off to the dining room. When she was gone, Lorelei glanced down at the page in the ledger. Malachai’s name was listed there along with pertinent information that the ledger had recalled on him, and beneath it all, a word in big, bold letters: DANGEROUS.

***

Lorelei stayed busy that day, not seeing Malachai again, but found him hiding around corners in her mind. She thought she’d hear his voice, but when she looked he wasn’t there, thought she saw his shadow, but it was always someone else. She couldn’t hide the disappointment on her face, and it was hanging heavy over her even at the end of her shift, but Ziah’s cautious words were echoing around her brain as well. But before she clocked out, she organized the mail that had come in that day, a bill from Faust and Sons, a flyer for puca repellent, a package for a guest that was growling, and was so surprised at seeing her own name in a delicate handwriting across a square envelope that she forgot about Malachai and Ziah completely.

She gently slipped the envelope open, inside the same beautiful script:

Dearest Lorelei,

It is good to learn your name. I cannot say much about what has been left to you in a letter, but please do not think the brooch has come into your possession by mere coincidence or, worse, error. I trust you can do what needs to be done.

Unless of course you cannot which is entirely possible. Gods know many have failed.

I am traveling the Amazon for the time being, so it may be some time before I can be in touch with you again, but keep your eyes open for the signs, my dear, and eventually I will return to the manor. Perhaps then we can discuss more over tea.

Sincerely,

J.S. Pennygrass, OoO

Lorelei reread the letter as she wandered out from behind the counter, wholly engrossed in the words. She hoped Conrad could offer more insight, but as she folded it up and slid it into her pocket, she looked up to see Malachai and her mind went blank.

So close that she could feel the warmth of his body, she felt the familiar tingles that came with his presence. She swallowed and took a step back, but that didn’t stop the feeling from traveling through her core, out into her limbs, and back.

“Join me for dinner.” The man was purring. Who purrs? she thought as his words coursed through her. Damn, who cares?

“I can’t,” she shook her head even as she walked through to the dining room with him, “It wouldn’t be appropriate.”

“But I’m alone otherwise,” he motioned to the room. Both Altair and Kamille were seated at separate tables, Altair with a young man who’d shown up to the manor two days prior, and Kamille with a couple that had checked in that afternoon.

Malachai’s hand was on the small of her back and electricity shot through her body. She didn’t hate it. He motioned to a small table in the corner, “Please.”

“Well, okay.” Lorelei practically sprinted to the table. In the shadows and against the back wall, it was unlikely Ziah would see them, and who was Ziah, or anyone, to tell her what to do anyway?

She dropped down onto the chair and watched Malachai slither into his own. The candle on the table cast demonic shadows across his face. She thought about what it meant to be possessed by something, then shook her head, embarrassed to have considered the thought. Malachai was simply staring at her from across the table, the flame flickering in his honey eyes.

She forced herself to look away, noting Hotaru’s diminutive frame coming out of the kitchen. She wouldn’t see her, but she was coming their way. Making a beeline, in fact. The girl’s eyes were focused on the food, but she was getting closer, traversing the maze of tables and chairs until she was on them, and before she could duck, Hotaru was sitting the plates down before them, her face almost as pink as Lorelei’s when their eyes met.

“I already ordered for us, I hope you don’t mind.” Malachai thanked Hotaru politely, but didn’t take his eyes off of his dinner companion.

Hotaru hurried off, and Lorelei felt nauseated, then she snapped her head back to him, “You ordered for me before you even knew I’d agree to eat with you?”

“Well,” he picked up his fork, “I hoped.”

She felt her head get dizzy again, but wanted to focus. “Tell me about growing up with Ziah,” she heard herself saying, “What was that like?”

“We actually didn’t grow up together, none of us did,” he smiled, “We were raised by different mothers. It is our father who we have in common. It was only when we were much older that we met.”

“Oh, Farrah too?” Lorelei realized she hadn’t seen the youngest in the dining room.

“Yes, we found her just a few years ago. We have other siblings as well, but none like us.” He winked, and she wasn’t sure if she was meant to understand. “It’s nice when we can all get together, but Ziah so infrequently obliges us, so we come to her,” he leaned closer, “And I’m very glad we did.”

Lorelei pulled her gaze away and picked up her own fork. Keep things formal, she told herself, “That’s nice. So what do you do?”

“Uh,” he seemed to stumble for a moment, then caught himself, “You mean my occupation? Of course, I write music.”

“Oh? Anything I might have heard?”

“It depends on how much time you spend in the human world,” he smirked, “They’re a lovely target audience. Almost too easy.”

Lorelei felt her heartbeat quicken, but not from excitement, “Oh, not much really,” she lore-lied.

“Then it isn’t likely. And you, what did you do before you came here to work with my sister?”

“School,” she told him truthfully, hoping he would assume the academy, “I studied a lot of things, like literature.” They definitely had books in this world, and he didn’t need to know the specifics of how wide a net she’d cast over her academics.

“Poetry?” he asked.

She felt that tingly sensation again. He was going somewhere with this. Somewhere she wasn’t sure she should follow. “I really like horror actually,” she stuffed a forkful of pasta into her mouth, “The bloodier the better.”

Malachai’s grin grew under the candlelight revealing sharp canines, and he laughed, “I knew I liked you for a reason, Lorelei.”

At the sound of her name again, she wanted to fling herself at him, but memories of Ziah’s hesitation to reveal what she truly was to Lorelei held her to the spot. They continued on, him attempting to lead her down a different path than she knew she should go, and her redirecting, almost against her own will. Once the plates had long been empty and the others had trickled out of the dining room, Lorelei was mentally exhausted, and her body ached. For what, she was unsure.

“It’s so late!” she exclaimed, barely making out the time on the clock in the shadows of the dining room, “I should be in bed!”

“Indeed,” he smirked and stood, “Let me take you there.”

Her eyes went wide. He hadn’t suggested anything untoward, not really, had he?

“Ready to go then?” Ziah appeared at his side, her arms crossed.

“Ah, sister–”

“Don’t you ‘sister’ me,” she held up a hand, “You said you came here for a hunt, and we’re waiting for you.”

Lorelei tried to sit very still, hoping Ziah wouldn’t see her, but couldn’t help screwing up her face at Ziah’s words. A hunt? In the middle of the night?

Malachai looked from one of them to the other then relented, “Yes, of course. If you will excuse me.”

When they both left, Lorelei barely caught Ziah’s unapproving eye. She was unsure whether she was relieved or annoyed, but once she was no longer in Malachai’s presence, she felt so completely sapped of energy, she almost leaned back and fell asleep.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment – Monday 5/21/18

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Vacancy – 1.18 – Something That Was Stolen

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

v 1.18

At the head of the stairs, Lorelei, Conrad, and Britney were promptly stopped in their tracks. The blackness of the entryway was lit up as thunder cracked across the sky, and two hunched figures, no more than two-feet high, scurried across the foyer with a dog gnashing its teeth at their heels. There were more.

Grier skidded around on four paws through to the dining room behind the halflings, crashing into a table and littering the hardwood with place settings. Lorelei followed, the gash in her leg long forgotten, as they burst through to the kitchen where Hotaru was waiting atop the center island. The girl gripped the faucet hose in both hands, gritting her teeth and blasting the creatures with near-boiling water. The halflings knocked into the metal cabinets with a ping, tripping over one another’s soaked forms as they tried to escape.

Growling, Grier lunged for them, but one managed to grab the handle of a cast iron skillet with an obscenely long arm, and swung it around, making contact with his snout. Hotaru scurried across the length of the counter and jumped down. She took up the broom beside the door that lead to the store room and looked as though she would try and sweep them outside, but upon opening the door she found another batch of halflings tearing through the crates of fresh food. They turned on her with a snarl and she yelped, running full speed back at Lorelei, dropping the broom in her wake.

The three piled out of the kitchen with angry, hissing halflings on their figurative and literal tails. “How many of them are there?” Lorelei shouted breathlessly, tripping over a shattered plate.

“Too many!” Hotaru grabbed the edge of the door as she spun around it and into the foyer.

They were met with multiple sets of beady eyes coming at them from the sitting room. If they didn’t immediately stop they would collide, but they didn’t have to make the choice.

As if she were in a dream, Lorelei tried to propel herself forward, but a pressure on her chest held her to the spot, suspended in mid air just at the main entrance. She couldn’t move her head but could just glance down to see Grier mid-bound and Hotaru with her arms straight out ahead of her to brace for an impact with the floor that apparently wasn’t going to come. Frozen in place, she found she could still breathe, but only just, and the panic that was beginning to settle in her chest was doing nothing to help.

“Oh crap, we got them too. Was that me or you?” Conrad stepped into Lorelei’s view, his arms crossed and eyes narrowed as he bent down to inspect one of the halflings as the creatures following them and coming at them had all been frozen as well.

“Definitely you.” Britney swept past them all and to the front door.

Then the room brightened as the candles in the chandelier and lining the walls sprung to life all at once. Lorelei could hear footsteps on the catwalk above them, then Ziah’s voice, “What in seven hells is going on?”

“Trow, looks like,” Conrad called up to her, “They came up from the pools.”

“The manor’s defenses were taken down,” Ren’s typical drone was laced with suspicion, “Seems a bit complicated for a pack of trow.”

“Ren’s prejudice aside,” Ziah came down the stairs, sweeping her long black mane over her shoulder, “we’ve never had trouble with halflings before.”

Conrad grabbed the back of one of the frozen trow’s necks then with his free hand snapped his fingers. The creature started the thrash wildly and chatter in an incomprehensible language, but Conrad held it firm. “Britney’s taken all sorts of language courses, she should be able to ask it what it wants.”

Britney had just cracked open the main door, a cold wind slipping in and the sound of the rain intensifying. She grimaced, “Probably just to ransack the place. Come on, let’s unstun them and throw them out. You’ve got security up again,” she gestured to the candles, “They won’t get back in.”

“No, we need to know.” Lorelei didn’t need to see Ziah’s face to know she was glaring at the woman. “You’re here, may as well make use of you.”

Britney sighed and closed the door. Rolling her eyes, she shouted something that sounded more like dry heaving than words.

The creature stopped trying to escape, holding still, then grumbled a response.

“Says they were hired,” Britney shrugged.

“By?”

After trading garbled phrases, Britney rolled her eyes again, “A warlock.” The trow spewed more words, and Britney listened, raising an eyebrow. She hesitated, then spoke, “They were sent here to retreive something that was stolen.”

Lorelei wanted desperately to see the looks they all wore, but could only see Britney. The blonde woman’s normally sour face was twisted in discomfort and her eyes were trailing the ground.

“If anyone’s got anything they shouldn’t, now would be the time to speak up,” Ziah cautioned.

“I don’t believe they can,” Ren said lowly over her shoulder.

“Oh, right,” Conrad nodded to Britney and the two snapped their fingers in unison.

The force pushing against Lorelei was suddenly gone, and she stumbled forward, her breath coming back all at once. Hotaru landed on the ground beside her, and when Grier made contact he instantly transformed back into a human. Groaning, the boy rolled over onto his back, blood running down his chin from his nose.

Ziah pulled Hotaru to her feet, “What exactly are they looking for?”

“They don’t know,” Britney responded without addressing the trow.

“Then how are they supposed to find it?” Lorelei helped Grier sit up and tilted his head back. The boy moaned, pinching his nose.

Britney threw her hands up, “I don’t know! They don’t really speak in full sentences!”

“Enough,” Ziah waved her hands, “Tell them they need to go.”

With a huff, Britney shouted again in a mishmosh of growls and groans and then with a look to Conrad they both snapped again. The trow were mobile, but when she opened the door they hustled out without complaint or pause into the rain.

“They just get to leave?” Lorelei gestured to Grier, “Just like that?”

“Just like that indeed,” Ren was standing very stiffly by the counter.

“We weren’t getting any more information out of them,” Ziah glared at Britney then turned away, “They didn’t get whatever they were after, and they won’t try again. Not like that anyway.”

Lorelei sighed, assuming they didn’t have a charmed police to call. Britney took Conrad aside into the sitting room, and while she wanted to follow, Lorelei instead went to the dining room. She tried the light switch when she entered and to her delight the bulbs overhead flicked on, breaker box unneeded.

Ziah came in after her to help pick up the shards of plates that had broken. “All this cleaning for nothing, hu?” Lorelei chuckled, gathering up silverware.

“Maybe,” Ziah glanced back out to the foyer and back to her, “Maybe not.”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.17 – What They Were Looking For

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

v - 1.17

Lorelei nudged the door open again, her candle illuminating the hall and the watery footprints. “Should we assume whoever left these is responsible for this no light situation?”

Conrad grimaced but nodded, “Most likely.”

“They look small.” There were no sounds coming from outside the room, and she stepped out into the hall, holding her candle out to see further. Though her light didn’t reach its end, it appeared the footsteps trailed the entirety of the hall, “Like a child, maybe?”

“It could be a lot of things,” he sighed.

“Many its.” The breathy voice came from back toward the water. In the light of the rocks, Lorelei could see a set of hands gripping the end of the boardwalk, long, thin fingers, then wet, black hair, plastered against a white forehead rose up from the water until two eyes peered back at them. “They came all at once, we could not stop them,” she hissed, her head bobbing hypnotically with the gentle wave of the water, “and they scuttled away.”

“What were they?” Conrad didn’t appear frightened by her sudden appearance, but Lorelei’s instinct was the bolt the other direction despite that that was down the pitch black hall behind some unknown monster. Instead, she just inched behind him as the woman spoke.

“I don’t know what you call them,” with her mouth hidden below the dock, it was even harder to place her voice as it echoed back off the water and over the rocks, “but they do not belong in the seas. And they do not belong here.” With a plunk in the black waters, the woman disappeared as if she’d never been there.

“It seems all of the manor’s defenses are down,” Conrad looked back to the dark hall, “except us.”

“Should we go get Ziah?” Lorelei questioned the back of Conrad’s head as he inevitably followed the footprints into the darkness.

“It might be too late by then.”

She found herself following close behind him, hugging the wall to avoid the wet prints and noting it did appear as though there were more than one of whatever had climbed out of the pool from the marks across the stone floor. “Too late? For what?”

“I’m not sure.” They came upon another door, this one already pushed open. It appeared to have been storage, but the boxes inside were open, canister lids stacked on shelves, and cabinet doors swinging wide. Nothing, however, was strewn across the floor, ripped, or pushed over.

The prints continued beyond the room into the hall. “Didn’t find what they were looking for?” Lorelei whispered and continued to follow Conrad into the dark.

Two more doors had been opened and rooms had been raided, but when they came to the laundry, a sound made them stop. Sheets had been strewn about so that every machine and line was covered. Candlelight fell into the folds of the sheets, moving with them as they tiptoed across the stones. Lorelei found the source of the shuffling, thrusting her candle toward a sheet that had been tossed down and was hanging from a rack. She could see movement beneath, and she reached out for the sheet.

Pulling it back revealed a creature no taller than two feet with grey and blue skin, hunched away from her and digging furiously into a box of miscellaneous socks. It spun toward her once uncovered, abandoning the box and letting out a creaking, wet screech. The thing lifted an arm so long it trailed the ground when it stood at its full height, curled claws at its end. Lorelei shrieked, jumping back as it moved on her, slashing a jagged, yellow talon.

Her jeans ripped on the thing’s claw as she stumbled away, but it kept coming. Lorelei pulled back her foot and connecting with it, sending the creature across the room until it hit the wall with a splat. Another two of them emerged from under the sheets, muttering a garbled, guttural language to one another. When they spied the two, they brandished their claws, but Conrad was quicker, pulling a vial from his pocket and throwing it to the ground at their feet. An orange dust filled up the room, obscuring everything and Lorelei began to choke on it. Conrad’s hand was around her arm, pulling her back from where he’d thrown the vial, and she stumbled into one of the washing machines with a reverberating clang, knocking a box of powdered laundry detergent to the floor, the white dust mixing with the orange.

The two creatures, followed by the third, scurried from the room amongst the clatter. They followed, but the creatures were impossibly fast, already disappeared by the time they skidded out into the hall. In the distance they heard three tiny splashes.

“What were those?” Lorelei asked breathlessly, grabbing the door frame for support, her candle having gone out in the run.

“Trow?” he screwed up his face, turning back to her, “Kobold maybe? I’ve never seen anything like them around here though. Hey, your leg!”

His candlelight revealed that the creature had sliced through through her pants and left a long scrape down her shin. “Woah,” she took a step, suddenly feeling the pain pulse across her shin.

Conrad dropped to the ground and took her ankle in his hand, throwing her off balance. She dropped her candle and scrambled for the doorway to stay upward. “It’s not too deep. I have something for this.”

“Oh my gods.”

At the hall’s end stood Conrad’s girlfriend. She looked more than a bit disgusted, carrying her own candle that illuminated her face in a fiery glow.

“Britney?” Conrad looked over his shoulder, “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing?” she gestured wildly to him.

Conrad stood, turning to her, Lorelei’s ankle still in hand. She squealed and gripped the frame more tightly, managing to stay up, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Lorelei was just attacked by some type of halfling.”

She pursed her lips, but couldn’t deny the blood, “Ew.”

Conrad glanced back to Lorelei then, realizing, dropped her foot. “Can you walk?”

Lorelei found she could manage down the hall, declining Conrad’s offers for assistance. He grumbled at Britney as he passed her, “I told you I was working tonight.”

“Oh? Down here in the dark?” she sniffed, leaning up against the wall outside his office. Conrad went inside to rummage for a salve and Lorelei stood beside her awkwardly. She had a candle, after all.

“The lights went out,” Lorelei offered meagerly.

“Duh,” Britney rolled her eyes then looked off down the hall toward its dark end and away from Lorelei. She really was quite pretty, even when she turned up her lip and exuded disgust, Lorelei thought, and that certainly counted for something. Today she wore her hair in a thick braid over her shoulder and a dark grey knit sweater, seasonably appropriate but she didn’t appear wet from the storm. There was a buzz in the silence of the hall, and Britney pulled a phone out of her pocket. She held it close to her face, illuminating her skin with a blue glow in the dark, then scoffed. She banged out out a message with her thumb and quickly pocketed the device, mumbling to herself, “I’m twenty three, father, not thirteen.”

Lorelei watched Britney lean her head back against the wall and close her eyes with a deep sigh, the repulsed look she typically wore gone. “Hey,” Lorelei pointed at her, “Your phone works!”

Britney flashed her eyes as if realizing she was there for the first time, but Conrad emerged from his office at that moment. He got down on his knees to apply the salve, but Lorelei was quick to take it from him and insist on doing it herself. As she sat on the ground, and slathered on the beige paste, she listened to the uncomfortable silence between them, wanting only to break it.

“Wow, this really takes the sting out,” she had put on her peppiest of voices.

“Thanks.” She didn’t even have to glance up at them to know they were glaring at one another. “I make it myself.”

“That’s great,” she faltered, “Uh, so those little halfling things, kinda crazy, huh?”

“Yeah,” Britney sucked her teeth, “It is pretty crazy that a halfling thing would be here. Almost unbelievable.”

Lorelei scowled at herself. How had she dug this hole deeper? She knew there was little she could say to smooth the moment over, hoping for a distraction, when fate answered her in the sound of a crash from upstairs. “Oh, thank god,” she sighed, jumping to her feet, “Let’s shift all our attention to that, shall we?”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Podcast: Vacancy – Episode 00

So I’ve been thinking for a while about accessibility and, of course, wanting to reach a larger audience with my blog in general, but especially with Vacancy, and after some careful planning, I came to the conclusion that making an audio recording of the story, like a podcast, was the best way to go. So, Dear Reader and Dear Listener, I did just that!

Episode 00

The audio will always be behind the written work, unless I take a hiatus from writing between seasons which seems likely, but definitely not long enough to let it catch up. I’m playing around with adding sound effects and general ambiance to the story, but I’m not changing the prose beyond correcting minor errors (and editing all the “hu”s to “huh”s because Husband is being driven insane by those, apparently). So neither is needed to make the other work, but if you’d like to take a listen I would really appreciate it.

A separate post with episode 1.01 will show up tomorrow, but the episode is already live on my Anchor channel, and I am extremely proud of it. There are plenty of things that are imperfect, but I feel incredibly accomplished right now in the afterglow of wrapping it all up. Am I even allowed to feel this good about something? Honestly, it must be illegal. Poseidon is coming for my hubris-riddled ass!

Vacancy’s Theme is “Planet Bullspit” by Corey Major

Vacancy – 1.16 – Here’s The Thing

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

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There were no footfalls on the stairs, no clinking dishes in the dining room, not even turning pages in the den. The only sound filling up Moonlit Shores Manor was the creaking of the rocker by the fireplace in which their omnipresent–and that night, their only– guest sat. But as always, he was very little trouble.

It was so quiet, in fact, that if Lorelei closed her eyes and strained, she could hear the gentle patter of rain as it began on the windows, something she wouldn’t normally notice until it had turned into a complete downpour.

It had been all hands on deck once the last guest checked out that morning, with Arista overseeing the scrubbing and polishing of floors, deep-cleaning of bathrooms, the removal of mysterious stains with both cleaners and the right words, and come evening the staff collapsed into the sitting room. Arista and Seamus had retired to their cottage with strict instructions to hold any and all issues until the morning, and Aoyagi had headed to the city with equally strict instructions regarding the kitchen. This left Hotaru a bit giddier than normal and Grier, well, exactly the same as always, and he kept trying to steal her seat out of shear force. She’d finally given up with him squeezing alongside her into one of two identical overstuffed, purple paisley chairs. Across from them, Ziah splayed out on the couch beside Lorelei paying no mind to their antics and sinking into the cushions. She still wore the over-sized, dirty flannel she’d worn to clean all day, unfit for welcoming guests. It seemed the manor was closed.

“Does this happen often?” Lorelei asked hesitantly, pulling a foot up under her on the couch. She certainly hoped the hotel didn’t regularly sit empty with no income.

“Almost never,” Ziah bobbed her head back and grinned, “Isn’t it lovely?” Thunder rumbled far off in the distance.

“The quiet is good,” Ren entered carrying in a tea tray for the group, choosing to sit with them instead of retire to his room above the barn. The little winged creature popped out from his shirt pocket and let out a squeaky mew. “Of course it could always be quieter.”

Conrad followed behind him laden with mugs, handing out the cups as Ren poured, then took the seat beside Lorelei. He lifted his mug, “To a job well done.”

Then, the lights went out.

No one moved for a rather long moment until Lorelei finally spoke, “I bet that almost never happens either.”

“Strange,” Ziah sat up, the faint glow of candles still illuminating the room, “But it’s probably just the storm.”

Then, as if they lived atop a birthday cake, the candles were all snuffed out with one massive blow.

Grier whistled, “And that never ever happens.”

The sounds outside, rain and wind, intensified as their sight was taken away. They sat with their cups, listening to the building storm, their figures silhouettes of shadow against the darkness of the room. Then there was a crash and lightning lit up the room.

Ziah jumped to her feet with a growl, “Conrad, you and Lorelei go flip the breakers downstairs. Ren, come with me to reset the candles. You two,” she pointed at Hotaru and Grier as if they had already committed whatever crime she’d made up in her mind, “stay right here.”

Lorelei took out her phone to light her way as she followed Conrad toward the basement stairs. The darkness in the sitting room had been familiar, but the illumination of her screen made the surrounding darkness that much darker, and approaching the basement steps made her a bit queasy.

The temperature dropped as they descended, the unlit candles eerie in the dark. Lorelei squeezed her arms in tight beside her, “I’m afraid to ask, but how do these candles go out all at once?”

“It’s a spell, sometimes they malfunction.”

There had been hesitation in his voice, and against better judgement she decided to prod, “At the same time the electricity goes out?”

“Yeah,” he grunted, “It…happens.”

At the bottom of the stairs, the pool remained lit in blues and purples from the bio-luminescent creatures that crawled across the rocks, but without additional lighting, their colors were magnified. Lorelei covered the light on her phone and stared out at it, “Wow.”

“You should go swimming sometime,” he gestured out at the water, “It’s warm year round.”

She dropped her voice to a whisper, “With whatever lives in there?”

“Why not?” he smirked, “You’re probably cousins.”

Lorelei screwed up her face then forced out a laugh, “Ha, oh, yeah.” She’d figured out a lorelei was some kind of water being that sang, something like a siren, but sometimes she thought the less she knew the better. An air of mystery–that was the plan.

“Speaking of,” Conrad started down the boardwalk across the water to the basement’s other side, “Is that why you came east? To get closer to the ocean?”

Lorelei swallowed, then spoke assuredly, “Yes.” It was as good a reason as any, better than hers, anyway.

“Well, Moonlit Shores is great for that. Have you been to the beach yet?”

“No.” This realization was odd to Lorelei–she hadn’t thought that the city of Moonlit Shores, the manor’s namesake, was in fact a shore. “I haven’t even been to town yet.”

“It’s not much,” he shrugged, “But I really love it.”

“Did you grow up there?”

“Sort of.” They came around the large rocks that lined the back of the pool and found themselves in the block corridor of the more traditional basement, “I went to school in town, I played there as a kid. My first job was at the fish market.”

Lorelei smiled, “Sounds nice.”

“Yeah but I smelled terrible for a year and half straight,” he sighed, “Okay, so where is the breaker box?”

“You’re asking me?” she lit up his back with her phone.

He turned back to her, the light from his own phone too bright for her eyes, “Yes?” It was more of a question than an answer.

“Haven’t you, like worked and lived here for years? And you don’t know where the breaker is?”

“That does seem like a thing I should know, hu?” She nodded vigorously. “Thing is, it moves a lot, and I haven’t seen it in probably six months.”

“It moves?”

“Well, the manor doesn’t like us messing with it.” There was a decidedly loud creak like the house was settling. Or agreeing. “See?”

Then they were plunged into darkness as their phones died. Simultaneously.

Lorelei tried waking hers up, pressing buttons and flipping it around, but nothing happened. The dwarf had said this couldn’t happen, hadn’t he? She felt a sudden panic at being trapped in the dark with a large body of water between her and the topside of the earth.

“Well, that’s not right,” Conrad’s voice was lower, darker, having lost its typical lilt, and it did nothing for her confidence.

Then a candle flickered before her, illuminating his face in a warm glow. He’d taken one down from the sconce in the wall and lit it.

“Thanks,” she took it a bit more aggressively than she meant when he handed it off, watching him as he took down another and squeezed the wick between his fingers. Snapping, a flame jumped to life. She stopped herself from asking him what the hell he’d just done and just nodded. “Right, you’re a witch, this makes sense,” she tried assuring herself.

“Well, that’s accurate,” he scratched at the back of his head, the candlelight contouring the muscles in his arm as he moved, and chuckled, “but warlock is a little sexier.”

That’s accurate,” she mumbled, then shook her head.

“The breaker has never not been in the basement, so I guess we just have to look. It was in my office for a week once, so let’s start there.”

The first door off the corridor was the apothecary’s chamber, and even in the dark it was identifiable by the smell alone. Spicey and a bit medical, the room woke you up when you entered it. Lorelei had only been past the open door a time or two, but never inside. With her candle, she took in the space as much as she looked for the breaker box. The walls were lined with open shelves, much like the store they’d been to, but his jars were mismatched and mostly unlabeled. She hoped he was as good at what he did as he seemed.

“So, Lore, what did you do before you came here?”

She felt herself go red at his shortening of her name, glad for the lack of light, “Oh, well, I guess you could say I’m a serial receptionist. I don’t have a big dream like you,” she touched one of the jars filled with a bright yellow seed.

“You don’t?” He had gotten down unto his knees and was peering under the exam table, “When we met you seemed kinda interested in Hagan’s.”

“The Academy?” she didn’t want to admit she’d just been jostled into staring up at the sign, “I actually went to school for a while, but it got expensive,” she sighed, running a finger over the spine of a book on curative snake bites, “Especially just taking elective after elective. I was on the road to a degree in everything and nothing.”

“That’s why you left? To sort of…find yourself?”

“Yeah, actually, I think so,” she turned toward him unsure why she was telling him this. He was already looking at her.

He looked at her earnestly, “Is it working?”

She bit her lip, “I’m not sure yet.”

There was a muffled noise from the hall and they both jerked toward the door. Lorelei ran through who it could possibly be in her head, but none of them seemed likely. Without a word, the two looked at one another and told the other to creep toward the door. Conrad eased the door open and slipped his candle out into the hall. On the stone floor they could see the shine of small puddles running from one end to the other. They were wet and misshapen but unmistakably footprints.

Lorelei leaned against the wall in the office when Conrad eased the door shut again. She started chewing on a nail, her voice at a whisper, “You know when the lights went out, I was like, okay that’s normal, but then the candles went out and that seemed kinda weird, and then our phones died, at the exact same time, and that seems extra weird. Is there something I should know?”

“So, here’s the thing,” Conrad tugged a hand through his hair, “Those are all normal things for Moonlit Shores Manor. Magic is finicky, spells overload, you get weird electrical things in the air. Any one of those things it totally legitimate.”

She looked at him eagerly to go on, “But all of them together?”

“That seems a bit more…purposeful.”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.15 – Turn Around

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

V 1.15

Their footfalls crackled ominously over dead leaves as they traipsed through the dark wood, Lorelei constantly shushing Grier only to find that it was actually her making all the noise. When they came to the the pond that Axel had specified, moonlight illuminated the clearing running around its shore in an delicate, silvery blue. It would have been beautiful if not so rife with impending doom. She checked once more with Grier that the moon didn’t control a werewolf’s change and he confirmed, rolling his eyes and mocking her for what he assumed her taste in fiction was.

The air was still, the pond like a black mirror reflecting the trees at its far end so that they seemed to go on forever. Then, their figures began to emerge from the forest. One, then two, then four, until seven looming shadows stood out against the tree line, staring her down. Axel was at their center, strutting toward her around the pond, an arm outstretched, “Tonight, we battle.”

Lorelei suddenly felt this was a very bad idea. “You guys don’t look like you brought any instruments.” Her voice was small as it drifted across the pond. The seven had come around the body of water to stand even with them. Though they were at least fifty paces away, at a full run–and on paws, Lorelei assumed–they’d be on them in an instant.

“Don’t worry about us,” Axel smiled, “You should only be concerned with yourself.”

Lorelei was concerned, among many other things. She felt a rush of warm, liquid courage, the nauseating nag of stage fright, and the very sudden urge to pee. But instead of addressing any of that, she held her hand out to Grier, and he dropped the microphone into it. With a nod from her, and his own heavy sigh, he pressed a button on the machine.

The tiny box projected an ethereal sound out over the pond, a tinkling of piano keys reaching out to get lost beyond the trees. There had been a great number of songs on the machine that she didn’t recognize, probably more than she did, but some music, she reckoned, was universal. Lorelei cleared her throat and brought the microphone to her mouth. From the box a strangled, stock voice cued her, “Turn around…” And she began, “Every now and then I get a little bit lonely, and you’re never comin round…”

As she continued, she heard herself as the sounds floated away from her, slightly distorted and haunting in the darkness. She accompanied the lone piano is a quavering alto, determined to look no one in the eye. She was buoyed by the addition of the bass and raised her voice a bit, “Every now and then I fall apart.”

When the percussion on the karaoke machine kicked in, she gripped the microphone sincerely with two hands. She glanced at her challengers, catching two stepping closer to her, and took one step herself toward them. She wished her hair were bigger. “Every now and then I get a little bit terrified but then I see the look in your eyes!”

The music built and she took a deep breath: this was it. “Every now and then I fall apart!” Lorelei’s voice traveled over the pond, echoing back at her from the trees, but she could barely hear it. She was focused, the words coming to her like a long forgotten memory. She could feel the lyrics erupting from her chest and she swayed with the melody.

She raised a finger and pointed squarely at Axel, “And if you only hold me tight, we’ll be holding on forever,” and his eyes went wide. She belted the words out to him as if they were bullets, “Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time!”

Lorelei threw an arm up, teetering for a moment then regaining her balance as she shout-sang. With a stomp, she shouted, “We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks!”

There was no way the entire manor could not hear her, or at least some spectral version of her voice, even as far as they were, but she didn’t care. She wanted the world to hear. And she wanted to have the foresight to have worn a white gown. “I really need you tonight!” She threw her head back and closed her eyes, screeching out a note humans could barely hear let alone make. With a deep breath she let her voice run, trill, reach up, down, over hill and dale, until finally she ran out of breath, “Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I’m only falling apart,” she panted for a second, then fell to her knees, “There’s nothing I can do, a total eclipse of the heart.”

Lorelei pawed at the pond’s shore, lifting up a handful or damp earth before her, “Once upon a time there was light in my life–” then she threw it to the side, “but now there’s only love in the dark.” Falling forward, she crumpled over the microphone, “Nothing I can say, a total eclipse of the heart.” Smashing the microphone against her lips, she whispered, “A total eclipse of the heart!”

Lorelei could hear her own breath over the speaker as she lay slumped over the microphone in the dirt. In a falsetto she whined, “Turn around bright eyes, turn around…” The music had ended, and her last shred of energy went with it. That had to have done it, she thought to herself, though she wasn’t quite sure what it was supposed to be as she peered up through strands of hair fallen free in her performance.

They were stunned into silence. The pack stared at her, mouths agape. She blinked back at them knowing she had done it. Somehow, from the depth of her soul, she’d mustered a performance to win over the pack. They wouldn’t even counter perform. She had won. A smile slowly spread across her face.

Axel grinned back, his teeth shining. The grin spread from one to another until the whole pack was a blinding set of white fangs. Lorelei, still on her knees in the dirt, sat up, “Did I win?”

Grier was quiet, and she finally glanced back at him. He looked as if he were petrified, his eyes locked on the wolves. Her guts churned, and she thought she might throw up. “I really want to take your speechlessness as a yes.”

The boy managed a tiny shake of his head, then Lorelei looked back to the pack. Something was happening. Something odd. Their figures were contorting in the moonlight, heads being thrown back, arms stretching impossibly wide. And the noises. Something between a howl and a growl and a human’s scream, but they weren’t entirely painful, almost celebratory, rapturous.

Axel growled, his voice like gravel, “Now it’s our turn.” There was a cracking like bone snapping.

Lorelei gingerly placed the microphone on the ground and began to get to her feet, her hope that they would perform dwindling, “What song are you guys going to do?”

“No song.”

Her stomach flipped again. “But that was the challenge,” she sputtered, taking a step back.

Axel laughed low then fell to his knees. The female werewolf was by his side, “We just wanted to see you make a fool of yourself before you died.”

Lorelei’s body went cold: she certainly wasn’t interested in dying. She grabbed for Grier, but the boy was frozen to the spot. “We need to run,” she was pulling at him, but he didn’t budge, “Now!”

“No,” his face fell, utterly devoid of emotion, “There’s no use. They’ll catch us. I need to just surrender.”

“No way,” she yanked at him again, the popping sounds of bone on bone echoing out around them as they changed, “Come on, let’s go!”

But Grier pulled himself away, taking a step toward the changing pack, “You should run. If I give myself up they might let you go.”

Lorelei watched him take another stunted step toward the werewolves, torn in two directions. She couldn’t physically drag him back to the manor, but everything in her screamed to stay and at least try. Standing at the edge of the pond and watching the pack writhe around on the bank ahead of them, she wished she could somehow swallow them up with the water, buy them more time, and run away.

And then, the water did just that.

Like a hand coming up from the depths, the water receded from the shore, forming into a massive wave, looming high above them all. Lorelei grabbed Grier, and as he was distracted by the sudden shadow above, she yanked him back and away from it. In an instant, the wall of water came crashing down, barely missing Grier and Lorelei, but drenching the group as they completed their transformations. The howls were swallowed up in the crashing wave and there was silence for a moment, then the heads of not-man but not-wolf creatures surfaced, spitting, gasping, gurgling, but the water did not let them escape. No, the water had encapsulated them, and was rising around them, pulling them out to the center of the pond and holding them there.

“What is the witch doing?” one of them growled.

“She’s no witch!” Axel responded with a sputter, “She’s a lorelei!”

Unsure if she really did have control over what was happening, Lorelei watched with mounting horror as the water made waves, pulling the werewolves under then allowing them up just long enough to get breath before sucking them back down. The pond churned with the force of an ocean in a hurricane, but the forest around was completely still.

Grier grabbed Lorelei’s arm, “Are you doing this?”

“I don’t think so,” she whispered, but it was then she realized the wolves didn’t know that.

When the water had calmed for a moment, still holding the creatures captive but barely afloat, she stood as tall as possible, “You thought you’d break our agreement, hu?”

The wolven-faced creature that had been Axel gasped and coughed, then sputtered, “Please, have mercy on us! We didn’t know!”

“Mercy?” she balled her fists and yelled out at them, “Why the hell would I do that?”

The water seemed to respond, jostling them around and dunking them again.

“You’re right!” a voice rose up, different from Axel’s, “We don’t deserve it!”

Others joined in, agreeing, then they began to beg between coughing and dunking. Lorelei felt a sudden panic. She hated Axel in her gut, but she felt for a moment the rest were victims, just like Grier. “Fine!” she shouted over the splashing, and she held up her hands as if to ask the water to stop, “Fine!”

The pond stagnated, but the werewolves appeared to still be trapped amongst the waters.

“But this is a win!” she pointed out at them, “I win, Grier is mine, and your pack has no jurisdiction here, all right?”

“Yes!” they were shouting in unison.

“I know I can’t really take your word for it,” she hesitated, and the pond started to rock them, gently, but fear grew on their faces instantly, “But if any of you ever return, the last thing you’ll ever see is–” she glanced at Grier, “are there eels in there?”

He raised his shoulders, his face frozen in awe.

“The last thing you’ll ever see is whatever lives at the bottom of this pond!”

There were watery agreements from the pack, and she nodded, “All right then.”

As if she were in control of the water, at her word it lifted the pack out and dumped them on the bank with a splat. Sopping and out of breath, they tried to raise themselves up, falling back all over one another. Looking up at her through soaked fur, they had a new fear in their eyes. Resigned, they began to back off toward the treeline.

Axel looked as though he wanted to say something, but the claw-link hands of one of his companions were on him, pulling him back, and he turned with the group, fleeing.

“How?” Grier’s voice was low as he stared at Lorelei.

She shrugged, “Pond’s enchanted or something, right?” It seemed obvious to her. He shrugged back, his eyes locked on the spot the pack had disappeared into. “Well, probably,” Lorelei remarked more to herself than anything, then turned back toward the path they’d taken to get there.

A small body lay on the ground just at the forest’s edge. It almost glowed, pale in the moonlight that reached there. Cautiously, they began toward it, but when Lorelei recognized the form, she broke into a sprint.

Hotaru was limp as Lorelei pulled her onto her lap. She tapped at her face and called her name, Grier dropping down at her side, the pack forgotten. The girl’s eyes fluttered open.

“What happened? Are you okay? How did you get out here?” Lorelei asked questions with rapid fire, and the girl just blinked back. “We need to get her back. Now.”

There was no time to discuss their victory as they carried her back to the manor and brought her inside to the sitting room, empty save for the sleeping man in the rocker by the fire who Lorelei expected wouldn’t tell a soul what was going on anyway. They placed her on the couch, but she’d stayed conscious for the trip and was breathing normally again.

“Should I get Conrad?” Grier was already moving for the door.

“No!” Hotaru sat up, then slumped back down. “No, no,” she placed a hand on her forehead and closed her eyes, “I will be all right, I just need to rest.”

“Was that…was that you in the woods?” Lorelei knelt down before her on the floor, remember the trick Hotaru had showed her with the bowl of water.

“Don’t be stupid,” Grier rolled his eyes.

But Hotaru’s guilty face told them both the truth without words.

“No way,” his hands fell at his sides.

“I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she spoke quietly and deliberately, “but I had to do something; you would have been killed.”

“Hotaru,” Lorelei grabbed her hand and scream-whispered, “You are amazing! You were eavesdropping on us, hu?”

The girl smiled weakly, “Accident.”

“I can’t believe it,” Grier flopped down onto the couch next to her feet, “Well, thanks. You really saved our skins.”

Her face went pink, “I just want to go to bed.”

They helped her to her room and saw to her getting under the covers where she instantly fell asleep. Back in the hall, Lorelei yawned and Grier followed suit. “Well, I’m glad you’re going to get to stay. And I’m extra glad I’m not dead. Pretty successful night, hu?”

Grier stood in the hallway, glancing at Hotaru’s closed door, then to Lorelei. His eyes were glassy, and his face was red. Then, in a move that neither of them really expected, he threw his arms around her and buried his face into her shoulder. For a moment Lorelei didn’t move, afraid it was a trick, then she relented and hugged him back. He squeezed her harder then, and she chuckled, “Well, I didn’t know my singing was that good.”

He pulled back from her and wiped at his face. He may have been crying, but neither of them would ever say. “Oh no, that was terrible.”

“Terrible?” she frowned, “Really?”

“Spectacularly bad. Like, I’m impressed at how bad it was.”

“All right, all right!” she hissed trying to stifle her laughter.

“The absolute worst,” he turned and went for his door, “Humans, they just can’t carry a tune to save their lives.” Then, offering her a quick smile, he slipped into his room and shut the door.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.14 – Something Stupid

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

Vacancy1.14

“He already has one.”

Axel blinked slowly, setting his dark eyes on her, “What was that, sweetheart?”

“A family. Grier already has us. He doesn’t need you.” Lorelei spat the words out, disgusted that the man who’d disfigured Grier would try and convince him that was what family did.

The werewolf took a step toward the girl, looking down his long nose at her, “Are you saying he is already committed to a pack?”

“Yeah,” she nodded vigorously, cooly walking to where Grier stood a few paces from the men and hoping Axel was dumb enough to believe it, “he is!”

“And who has authority over this pack?”

Grier reached out to grab her, but she felt his hand a moment too late. She was angry, and the words came before any other senses could register. “I do.”

Axel smiled, looking over at the others in his own pack. They began to snicker until it built to full on laughter, shoulders shaking. Axel threw back his head and his voice crescendoed into a howl. The others joined in, sending their cries up into the sky, and the sound of other voices echoed back from deep in the forest.

Lorelei took a step closer to Grier, dropping her voice to a whisper, “What the hell is happening?”

“You, uh, just declared yourself the alpha,” he was wide eyed, staring intently at Axel as he howled, “to another alpha.”

“What?” Lorelei looked from one werewolf to another, “What does that even mean?”

Axel dropped his head back down and strode right up to Lorelei, leaning down so his nose was inches from her own. The others fell silent. “I challenge you to luno agon.”

The others threw their heads back once more and screamed into the sky, “Luno agon!”

Lorelei tried to not look away, but his breath was appalling and she grimaced. She had no idea what the words meant, but didn’t feel very confident that they were anything good.

“Are you not brave enough?” Axel growled, snapping his jaw at her, and she recoiled.

“She is not brave!” the woman shouted, and other voices from the forest echoed back.

“Hey!” Lorelei could feel her knees trembling, but she was still standing there, wasn’t she? “I just don’t know what that means.”

The tallest werewolf threw back his head, “She doesn’t know what that–” then stopped abruptly, looking to Axel who shook his head.

Axel stood straight and looked her up and down. “A duel,” he was almost giddy, “For the boy.”

Lorelei immediately felt slimy, “You can’t just, like, win people.”

“You claim the boy belongs to you!” Axel was suddenly furious.

“Yes, yes okay!” she threw up her hands, “Fine. For the boy.”

He composed himself with a long breath, “We will duel. Now, what is the challenge?”

“You’re asking me?”

“Yes,” he was visibly agitated, rolling his eyes, “Lupo agon. The challengee sets the specifics of the duel. Typically we fight to the death, we’re werewolves, but maybe your culture is different. What are you anyway?”

“Uh, I’m a lorelei,” she lore-lied.

“A lorelei?” Axel snickered, “What are you going to do? Sing me to death?” His laughed morphed into a full bellied guffaw, and the others were quick to follow suit.

She glanced to Grier who was was pale-skinned and wide-eyed, his mouth hanging open. He would be no help. She turned back to Axel, “Yeah. Yeah, I am. I challenge you to a sing off, okay? ‘Devil Went Down To Georgia’ style.”

The werewolf’s laughter died off, and Axel held his stomach as he looked down at her, wiping away a tear,  “This can’t–you can’t–can she do that?”

Bewildered, the pack looked at one another, then the woman crossed her arms and smiled, “She can declare lupo agon in whatever way she likes.”

“But that can’t–”

“In whatever way she likes!” the woman scowled, and Axel huffed.

“Fine! Tonight, at midnight, by the pond.”

“Fine!” she shouted back, crossing her arms and stomping a foot.

“Fine!” Axel turned on his heel and began out into the woods, the others at his feet. She watched them go, her heart thumping so loudly it was banging against her ears, but she didn’t dare move until they were out of sight.

Finally, Grier cleared his throat, “So, that just happened.”

“Yup.”

“Can you, like, even sing?”

Lorelei’s arms fell to her sides and she hung her head, “Not at all.”

***

“I need more alcohol.” Lorelei had finished off half of a bottle of wine, but she wasn’t feeling very tipsy.

“How will that help?” Across the table from her in the empty kitchen, Grier was fidgeting with the icing on a cupcake that Hotaru had shyly given him before heading off to bed. It was close to midnight and the day had gone by too quickly. Now he was looking much younger than he’d ever seemed with chocolate frosting on his finger that he couldn’t bare eating.

“I did karaoke once when I was very drunk. From what I remember, I was pretty good, so that’s our best bet.” She went to stand and wobbled a bit, “Oh, hey, did you see that? I think we’re getting there.”

“Oh, geez,” Grier slapped his forehead, but Lorelei ignored him, grabbing a bottle of yellow-colored liquid from one of the wine coolers.

She made her way back to her seat and worked the cork out, “So, why do they want you so badly anyway? You clearly don’t want to be in their cult.”

Grier sighed, stretching his arms across the table, “Most people don’t survive the curse, but I was one of the lucky few.”

“Slim pickens,” Lorelei poured herself some of the liquid, took a drink, and instantly regretted it, “Ew!” She pushed the bottle away.

“Lightweight,” Grier grinned, the first time he’d smiled all day, “but what can you expect from a human.”

Lorelei crossed her arms, tipping back then quickly steadying herself, “You said Axel, a werewolf, did this to you,” she motioned to her own face, “So why do you hate humans so much? I mean, clearly you used to be one.”

Grier was quiet a moment. He opened his mouth a couple times, then closed it again, but Lorelei was patient. She could wait him out. Finally, the boy looked down at his lap and began. “Axel was my mom’s boyfriend. She didn’t know what he was, not at first, she just thought he was an alcoholic, and that was fine with her. He got worse as time went on, he’d leave, he’d come back, he’d bring friends.” The boy never looked up at her, his voice low. “The older I got, the more I hated him, and when I let him know, he took his anger out on me. I thought my mom wouldn’t let that happen but she seemed, I don’t know, relieved?” he scratched behind an ear, “Like glad it wasn’t her anymore. Then we found out what he was and instead of running away it just made her want to be with him more. It was so stupid,” he slammed his fist down on the table, “So human.”

Lorelei watched him grit his teeth as he stared at his fist, but didn’t speak: there wasn’t anything she could say.

“After he scarred me, he said he’d be back, if I survived, and left us, but he didn’t come back. I thought things might be okay after that, but I was wrong. Mom seemed to just hate me, like she looked at me like I was him, and she said she knew what I’d become. A monster.” His voice cracked, then he shook his head, “When I figured out I could change, I was able to hide it, but I couldn’t hide my face. The kids I went to school with called me names, and no one understood or believed me. Everyone was so cruel all the time, even my own mother.”

Lorelei felt the urge to hug him, but thought better of it as he was explaining to her why he hated the very thing she was. “So, you left?” she whispered.

“Yeah,” he nodded, “A few years ago. I tried making it on my own, but it’s hard. Eventually I found this place, or, well, it found me kinda, and I’ve been here since. I didn’t think Axel would ever come for me. Or, at least, he wouldn’t be able to find me. I hoped he would forget about me, but I’ve learned a lot about werewolves since then, and there aren’t many of us. He’s the kinda guy who thinks there should be more. And he thinks he should be in charge of them.”

“Well,” Lorelei slapped her hand down harder than she meant to, “he’s not in charge of you, buddy!” She wasn’t quite sure where her choice of words had come from and hiccuped.

“You know you don’t have to do this,” he eyed her nervously, “You shouldn’t do this.”

“Oh, you mean I don’t have to challenge a pack of carnivorous wolf-men for your very soul?” she chuckled, “Yeah, I know.”

“Seriously,” his frown was deep, “I mean, Axel’s dumb, but you don’t seem that stupid. For a human.”

“The whole thing is stupid,” Lorelei waved at him, “You can’t own somebody. If they need this little show, though, to prove that, then so be it. You got the thing?”

“Oh, yeah,” he reached down and lifted up a portable speaker box with a microphone, “We haven’t used it in a while, but it still works.”

“All right, let’s go win us a lupin aragog!”

Lupo agon.”

She popped up from her chair and nearly fell over, but caught herself at the last minute, “Whatever!”

 

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