Vacancy – 2.01 – The Box

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

v 2.01

Lorelei Fischer stood at the front desk of Moonlit Shores Manor, head dipped down over a tome of thick pages so engrossed with the odd building’s moving layout–it had to be in there somewhere, but where?–that she did not hear the heavy footfalls coming into the foyer. It was only when letters were dropped atop the book that she was startled backward, abruptly looking up and seeing Helena, the mail carrier. She was, of course, right on time, as always, wearing something like half a grin and half a grimace. Lorelei was used to the grey locks of the woman, her sharp features, her inordinate height, but the wings were always a bit of a shock.

After exchanging embarrassed pleasantries, she flipped through the mail and separated out what was meant for guests, disappointed yet again to not receive any word from Ms. Pennycress, but the package at the pile’s bottom soon stole her attention. Square and wrapped in thick, brown paper, the package was tied with a velvety ribbon, and from under it was secured a card.

The card’s outside was water-stained, the To and From illegible, but inside the words were clear:

My deepest gratitude for a most pleasant stay to my favorite employee at Moonlit Shores Manor. Tampering by any other will earn the meddler grave disappointment and a gruesome curse.

“That’s ominous,” Lorelei mumbled to herself, looking up again, but the mailwoman had gone and with her any chance for clarification.

With a shrug, she turned to secure it in the office when Ziah emerged from the door behind the counter. Lorelei handed off the package, asking for her thoughts: Ziah typically had all the answers anyway.

“Oh, well, this is…lovely.” Her voice, which could almost always be described as a purr when she was not shouting, this time sounded far away and dreamy.

Lorelei eyed the box again, nicely wrapped, but nothing extraordinary, then her companion, “I suppose.”

From the dining room, Conrad passed through the foyer carrying a basket filled with dried sprigs and flowers. He offered them a wave and a smile as he hurried toward the basement, and Lorelei waved a bit overzealously back, though when she turned back to Ziah, the woman appeared to have not noticed him at all.

“Ya know, I bet it is for you,” she sighed, staring at the succubus, “I bet people fall in love with you all the time. Must be nice.” Ziah did not respond, but instead lifted the box, blinking dark cat eyes as she examined the packaging. She turned it over delicately in her hands then held it to her ear.

Lorelei raised her voice, “So, uh, who do you think it’s for?”

Ziah cocked her head, her answer more alarming in how it sounded than what she said, “I don’t know.”

“Are you feeling okay?” Lorelei waved a hand before Ziah’s face, and when the woman didn’t react, she snatched the parcel back. Ziah, startled, lunged for it, then stopped herself with a gasp.

“That isn’t good.” The woman backed away from the girl, gripping the counter and glancing worriedly about the room. Nibbling on a nail, Ziah’s eyes widened when Grier entered the foyer, and she stopped him and ordered him to take the box from Lorelei.

The teen balanced the parcel in one hand and rolled his eye, though the other milky and scarred one looked equally annoyed. “Now what?”

“Hm, maybe I’m wrong,” Ziah touched a finger to her lips, “I felt very…odd with that thing. Like I was enchanted, sort of like, well, how I imagine people might feel around me. You didn’t get that feeling, Lore?”

She shook her head.

“Stop that!” Ziah suddenly slapped the box from Grier’s hand. A corner of the paper was torn and his eyes–even the white one–were glassy.

Ziah kicked the package over to Lorelei’s feet, “You may be the only one who can be trusted with this,” she shifted her gaze left and right, “for reasons. Hold onto it. Tight. Maybe someone here is expecting it.”

With the package in hand, and Ziah and Grier in tow, Lorelei went on through the dining room and into the kitchen, bustling as ever with bubbling and chopping. Ando’s voice rang out the minute she crossed the threshold, “No!”

She stopped, letting the door swing backward and hearing it connect with Grier’s face, and he swore from his new spot on the ground.

“Bad magic,” the man emerged from behind a steaming pot, his eyes trained on the package.

“How do you know?” Lorelei could see Hotaru peeking out from the pantry as her uncle came toward them, brandishing a cleaver.

He crossed both sets of arms and frowned, his curt mustache twitching, “You don’t live over five hundred years and not know bad magic when you feel it. Get it out of my kitchen before it taints lunch!”

Lorelei backed out with the box clenched tightly to her chest. “So we should throw this away, right?” She knew as soon as she asked what the answer would be. Both Grier and Ziah shook their heads frantically, insisting that of course not, she shouldn’t be so silly, the contents would surely outweigh whatever mishap might befall them, and Ando was prone to exaggeration anyway–he was barely three hundred from what they understood.

“And tampering with mail is a federal offence!” Grier reminded them with a knowing look.

Lorelei scowled, pointing to the tear he’d made, “You’re one to talk.” She lead them through the dining room where a few guests were enjoying a late breakfast, and out onto the empty side porch. Clearing her throat, she tucked the box under her arm, “Plus, I imagine you people have different rules about these things.”

Just as Grier began to growl in her ear about what she meant by you people, Ziah asked more loudly with an air of forced casualty something more pressing, “Where are you taking it?”

“Ren is usually pretty sensible.” Lorelei marched toward the barn, her pace quickening as she tried to shake them, and found the elf inside as she expected. He tended to something large and loud concealed inside the stables, his disinterest in them changing when he eyed what Lorelei was holding. “This stupid box is cursed,” she said matter-of-factly, presenting it to him.

As Ziah and Grier protested the meaning of cursed, a pair of small hands whipped the package away from Lorelei. Hotaru paced the length of the barn, evading Ren, and turned the package over as she stared down at it. Lorelei followed, as did the other three, but the girl was suddenly graceful even with her eyes glued to the box, murmuring how pretty it was.

“You see?” Lorelei gestured to her, but even Ren’s attention had all but fallen to the mysterious container. “Ren?”

He twitched a long ear toward her and stood straight, clasping his hands behind his back. Ziah had gotten the package back, for only a moment, when Ren’s companion scampered out from his pocket and tripped Hotaru, then Grier had stolen it from her hands. With his superior reach, Ren plucked it away from the boy finally and held it above all of their heads, his winged, cat-like friend perched on his shoulder, reading the card. “Puzzling.”

With a bit of a struggle, the elf handed it to Lorelei, “The answer is likely to find its true owner. I can assist with this.”

There was a clatter from the shadows of the stable. “Are you sure?”

Without even a glance back at whatever creature was causing the ruckus, Ren nodded, “Yes.”

The band of five traipsed across the yard again, Lorelei with a tight grip on the box and an even tighter frown. At this point, she realized, she might not even be able to discard it as they’d all just clamor after it, and she knew she’d feel awfully guilty if any of them came down with a particularly bad case of being cursed, despite how vague that had been. Her own uncharmed status seemed to make her immune–it was good for something, at least–but she wondered how long the others would remain amicable while she denied them what they wanted. Especially those that knew her secret.

As they took to the stairs to Moonlit Shores Manor’s basement, bright, flitting lights crossing her path stopped them all. Bur, the head of the manor’s janitorial staff, hovered just before Lorelei’s nose. “What you got there?”

She was blurry for a second, then Lorelei was able to focus, the tiny woman’s bright red hair haloing around her body in a mass, and her wings flapping so quickly they were transparent.

“Nothing,” Lorelei answered quickly, remembering all the ways she’d been tricked by Bur’s ilk in the past few months, “So don’t worry–hey!” The box was lifted from her hands straight up to the ceiling of the stairwell. She felt the lurch of those behind her reaching for it and steadied herself with a hand on each railing to hold them back and keep herself from tumbling forward.

The blonde fairy, Tuatha, stuck her tongue out from the underside of the box where she held it up, and even Habian’s melancholic gaze held a special sort of excitement as he carried the package by the corner of its bow down toward the base of the stairs.

“You guys, wait!” Lorelei thundered down the stairs after the three dots of light, the sound of her colleagues behind her a great catalyst to move quickly. She followed the fairies across the boardwalk over the black pools and into the long, stone corridor. They were out of reach and impossibly fast, but came to an abrupt halt when one of the doors swung open and Conrad stepped out into the hallway.

The package bounced off Conrad’s head and fell to the floor at his feet, and the fairies immediately began bickering with one another about whose fault the mishap had been. Lorelei shouted at him to stop, but he’d already picked it up and his jaw had gone slack. He’d been the fastest yet.

Swearing, Lorelei ripped the box from his hands before he could react and pushed past him into the apothecary, rounding on the small crowd that nearly trampled one another to get in through the door. “Listen up, all of you,” she held the box over her head, “You’re acting crazy. This is just a stupid box, and whatever’s inside might just kill you if you open up. Is that a chance any of you are willing to take?”

Their voices came at her all at once, a garbled mess of pleading and shouting, some of them turning on each other. She watched their faces change as they fought, arguing, calling names, hardly recognizing people she would have considered friends earlier in the day. Her stomach twisted into a knot, “Stop it!”

A hush fell over them as they turned their eyes back to her, slowly. Too slowly for comfort.

“Clearly we can’t tell who this really belongs to, so–”

“Obviously it’s for me,” Ziah announced, jutting out a hip and holding her head up, “You said it yourself, Lorelei, people send me gifts all the time.”

“Of course you’d think that,” Grier huffed.

“Well, it’s obviously not meant for you,” Ziah scowled back.

The boy grinned, “You don’t think someone might send me a big old thank you? Like maybe your sister?”

While Lorelei contemplated how similar the magic of the box was to a succubus, Hotaru piped up, a particularly annoyed look to her scrunched up face, “You know there are other ways to earn gratitude than sleeping around. Like taking special care of dietary restrictions!”

“Or care of beloved companions,” Ren spoke a bit more loudly than he was wont to do, his pet chirping in agreement.

“Or how about the guests themselves?” Conrad sneered at the elf, and was met with a less than stoic gaze.

As they fell again into bickering, the fairies’ tiny voices buzzing about as well, Lorelei sighed and rubbed her temples. This was getting her nowhere.

“There you all are!” Arista’s dagger of a voice sliced through them all as she appeared in the doorway, Seamus cowering behind her. “What is all this racket, and why can’t it wait until after hours? I had to check someone in myself just now, and I’m certainly not paying all of you so that I can do your jobs!” She stomped into the room, walking straight up to Lorelei, “Specifically, siren, your job! I didn’t expect to have a–” she breathed in suddenly, her eyes falling to the parcel, “to have a, uh, huh.” Arista leaned over, Seamus just behind her, and she plucked the box from Lorelei’s hands, “How peculiar. Is it…is it meant for someone?”

With a long, low breath, Lorelei, prepared herself. She screwed up her courage and grabbed the box back, flying past the others and down the hall. Behind her, she could hear the group realizing what had happened and their footsteps as they hurried behind her, but she’d already taken to the stairs. Back on the main floor, she skidded past the reception desk and across the foyer into the sitting room.

“Excuse me!” she called out to the couple who was enjoying tea on the loveseat, “If you don’t mind, we’re having a staff meeting. We’ll only be a minute.”

“We?” the man looked behind her where no one stood, then jumped up the minute he saw the mob that plunged into the room.

“The conservatory’s lovely this time of year,” Lorelei nodded at them frantically as she hurried them out and shut the door fast behind them, shivering at the last of the autumn chill. From the front of the room, they were shouting at her, the whole lot of them, and coming at her like a wall. She glanced to the sleeping man for help, but he only rocked methodically and let out a gentle snore. Then Lorelei’s mind ticked, and she held the box–the utterly stupid box–over her head. “Don’t try me! I’ll do it!”

Looks of horror settled on their faces, the fire crackling in the silence left in wake of their arguing. It was warm on Lorelei’s back, doing nothing to alleviate her panicky sweat.

“Do I have your attention now?” Worried heads nodded back at her. “If the wrong one of you opens this box, you’ll be cursed! Do you all understand that? Are you prepared for that?”

“I won’t be!” A chorus of dissent rose up from those before her insisting they were the true recipient. But of course, there was no way to tell, and none of them were being reasonable.

“You’ve all completely lost it,” she felt her arms go lax though she still held the package aloft, “This stupid little box has made you all go completely mad. I should just destroy it.” As she dropped her hands down to fling it in the fire, the group was suddenly louder than they’d ever been. Their faces contorted, and they advanced on her until she froze.

The group appeared as if they might just rip her to shreds right there. If she threw the box in the fire, would its hold over them actually dissipate? And even if it did, would it happen fast enough to save her from being chucked along into the fire right behind it?

The girl sighed, “Fine.” She glanced down at the ribbon, slightly askew now, and the brown paper, corners ruffled. There was only one way out.

Lorelei tugged the bow, and it fell away easily. As the paper unfolded, those assembled gasped, but none converged on her. Instead, a light shone from inside the parcel, blinding for a moment, then it was gone.

“Well, what is it?” Ziah’s voice was panicked, desperate.

“Nothing.” Lorelei turned the empty container toward them, lifting her head and frowning. She shook it, just to be sure, then tossed it toward them, Ren reaching out and catching it, then passing it around.

Lorelei took a deep breath, ready, but nothing came. She did not feel suddenly ill or woebegotten. She took a step but her legs worked, and she didn’t trip on nothing. For a second she was quite pleased, then felt an incredible sense of doom: the curse was likely something much worse than she imagined.

“Nobody invited me to the party.” Britney leaned against the entrance to the sitting room, arms crossed, a lip upturned. No one had heard her enter in the commotion, and the woman seemed especially annoyed at that.

“Oh,” Conrad, rubbed the side of his face, “There was some mail.”

“Stupid, really,” Ziah laughed meekly.

“So dumb,” Grier agreed, “could have been for anyone.”

Britney perked up, raising an eyebrow.

Ren stood very straight and clasped his hands behind his back, “It was supposedly cursed, but it must have been a bit of a hoax.”

“Cursed?” Britney smirked, “And let me guess: she was dumb enough to open it?”

Lorelei felt all their eyes go back to her then watched their faces change again. “What? What’s wrong?” She turned swiftly to glance in the mirror above the fireplace. Marks were forming, red and angry, across her nose, her cheeks, her chin, and leaving white pustules that were already beginning to ooze. They suddenly burned, and she cried out. That stupid box!

“I have something for that!” Conrad announced, striding up to her and whirling her toward him. His face inches from hers, one of the pimples burst and splattered him with white puss. “Yeah, standard one hundred level her. Not to worry!” He gently took her elbow and guided her across the room. Her eyes were swelling.

“Hey, we have lunch plans,” she heard Britney growl from the doorway as they passed.

“Medical emergency, dear.” He lead her with his arm, and though she couldn’t see him, she all but heard him roll his eyes.

Maybe the box wasn’t that stupid after all.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment – 9/17/18

Well it was a bit behind schedule, but it happened! Happy season two premier! More to come, hopefully on time, as fall unfolds.

If you’re enjoying Vacancy, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!

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

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Vacancy – 1.25 – Promise

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

v 1.25

“They’re dead, idiot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What else would I mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed, blinking slowly, then finally nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, uh, yeah,” he studied the floor.

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

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

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

He half smiled.

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

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

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

“Maybe tomorrow?”

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

 

Table of Contents | Season Two – Episode 1

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

If you enjoyed the first season, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!

Vacancy – 1.24 – Telling Lies

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

v 1.24

Conrad came around the desk, his steps fast and loud on the hardwoods, “Lorelei, meet my brother.”

So, this man, matching Conrad in so many ways, even in how he leaned against the door to their father’s study, was in fact his brother. But that was impossible, wasn’t it? “So there are ghosts here?” Lorelei felt stuck to the spot though she wanted to step back and away from the stranger, her stomach instantly in knots.

“Oh, no,” the man smiled slowly from the side of his mouth, “I’m very much alive.” Even in the darkness she could make out how they shared the same chin, and had this man’s been unbroken, the same nose, but the feeling swimming in her gut when she looked at Conrad’s brother did not bring about the same comforting familiarity as when she looked on Conrad himself. No, this feeling was one of dread.

Lorelei dropped her voice low, turning slightly over her shoulder though she was afraid to take her eyes off him, “But you said he died.”

The man chuckled, “Telling lies about me again?”

“To be fair, I haven’t seen him in years, so he may as well have been dead,” Conrad’s voice had gone cold and unfamiliar, and mixed with the grin his brother wore sent a chill down Lorelei’s spine, “but I’m pretty sure I was just vague enough to leave it open to interpretation.”

“I’m Byron,” the man extended a hand, pushing himself off the doorway, but Conrad cut him off with a few aggressive steps forward. “Oh, a little touchy, I see,” he glanced down at his own hand then dropped it, “or not.”

“What are you doing here?” Conrad’s voice dropped to a low rumble.

Byron pouted, “The prodigal son can’t come home?”

“This isn’t your home anymore.”

“From the looks of it, it’s not yours either,” he shrugged, pacing around the edge of the study. Conrad moved with him, placing himself between Lorelei and his brother. “Figured by now you’d be all settled in, married to that Blackburn girl,” he raised an eyebrow at Lorelei, “That doesn’t look like her though. Apple doesn’t fall far, eh?”

“Don’t,” Conrad growled then took a breath, “Don’t talk like you know me. Now tell me why you’re here.”

“Well, probably the same reason as you, but it looks like we’re both out of luck.” Byron kicked at some of the papers on the floor then turned, “Unless you already have it?”

Conrad stared at him, steely, and Lorelei said nothing. They, of course, had no idea what they were even looking for.

“You’d share wouldn’t you?” Byron took another step toward him, “Like when we were kids?”

Conrad grit his teeth, “There’s nothing here for either of us.”

“No? Well, that doesn’t mean we can’t catch up,” Byron shrugged, “Maybe play a little game? Remember when you used to be playing with something, and I wanted it?”

Conrad reached back and grabbed Lorelei, his fingers digging into her wrist, and he pulled her so that she was behind him. She suspected she should have felt safer, but absolutely did not.

“Remember how I used to just take it?”

“Yeah, you were a jerk then, and I can only imagine you haven’t grown out of it.”

“I wasn’t a very good brother,” he laughed, “Kind of stupid too because I never really wanted what you had, I just didn’t want you to have it.”

Byron raised his hand and with a flash the room lit up. Conrad’s grip around Lorelei’s wrist was gone as he fell to his knees before her, but before she could react, something struck her core, searing through her body. She too wanted to fall into a ball on the ground, but found herself paralyzed, unable to even draw a breath.

Byron took an easy step over Conrad’s body as he groaned on the floor. “It’s cute you thought I wouldn’t attack you.” He got behind Lorelei and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, holding her up against him and pulling her backward toward the door. She wanted to pull away, but couldn’t move.

Conrad rolled onto his knees and staggered to his feet, “What the hell, Byron?”

“Just tell me where the damn deed is.” Byron’s breath was hot on Lorelei’s ear, and it sounded as though he were trying to hide how fatigued he’d suddenly become.

Conrad was coughing, fighting to stand straight, “Deed?”

“To the manor,” Byron shook Lorelei for emphasis, and she began to feel a tingling in her limbs and managed to catch her breath. “Where is it?”

Shaking his head, Conrad focused on them, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and she’s got no idea either, so just let her go.”

“Make me!” She could hear a smile in Byron’s voice. He was enjoying this. “Come on, Conrad, I know you’re better than this.” Lorelei felt her own weight then, as the feeling fully returned in her legs and arms.

With a grunt, Conrad pulled a sachet from his bag.

“One of your little potions? You still do that?” Disappointment dripped from his words, “Come on now, if you refuse to try I’m just going to kill her.”

Lorelei grabbed onto the arm Byron had around her shoulders and pulled down. Catching him off guard and apparently weakened, she managed to spin around in his grasp and wrench her knee upward until it connected with his gut. He coughed, doubling over and releasing her.

The moment she was free of him, Conrad stumbled forward with a fist balled around the sachet and struck his jaw. Byron’s body lifted from the ground and sailed out through the doorway, crashing loudly on the landing. Conrad glanced at his fist, raising his eyebrows in momentary surprise as the sachet melted away, then staggered out the door.

Lorelei heard them on the landing, a shout, and smash, something–possibly human–breaking, but her own senses were dulled and her limbs shaking with either injury or fear, she didn’t know. She blinked about the room for the flashlight, having lost it when she was struck by, what exactly? Had that been magic? Honest to goodness witchcraft? Shaking her head, she ran to the doorway: the pale light streaming in from the window on the landing would surely be all she needed to glimpse the ensuring battle.

The boys were wrestling. She couldn’t tell who had the upper hand as they rolled into the wall and knocked a portrait to the floor. Conrad threw another punch and it was dodged, then Byron caught him in the face with his own elbow, but it had looked to be accidental. Neither seemed to be doing much damage so close to one another, and with Byron’s threat of murder long forgotten, Lorelei sighed to herself, “This is disappointing.”

Perhaps louder than she meant, her words froze them, and they both glanced back at her. “Uh,” she swallowed, “I mean, you’re witches–sorry, warlocks–I just didn’t expect…whatever this is.”

The two then locked eyes with one another, each grimaced as if they realized it at the same moment, and the room lit up with a brilliant green flash and a deafening crack. Lorelei felt the light like a wave as it passed through her, and she grabbed the doorway to stay on her feet, and when it went out, the two stood on opposite sides of the landing.

The portrait they had knocked down flew up from the floor unaided toward Conrad, and he raised an arm just before it crashed into him. Byron grunted, annoyed, flicking his hand in front of his face, and the finial from atop the stair’s railing was sent toward Conrad’s head. This time, Conrad threw his hand out and redirected the finial so that it took a turn and fell down the shaft, bouncing off the landing with a crack on the stories below.

Again, Byron made an annoyed sound in the back of his throat and swept his arm in front of himself. A chair slid out from against the wall, and Conrad used both arms to send it away, toward Byron, where it stopped at his feet.

“Deflect, deflect, deflect!” Byron started flipping both of his hands into the air from which cracks of toxically green bolts were flinging, “How am I supposed to know who’s better if you don’t do something?”

“You’re insane.” The hissing green strikes died out just at the edge of where Conrad held his hands. He’d taken a wide stance and dipped his head low.

“No, our father was. Insane for leaving everything to you without testing your mettle.”

“Arista manages the manor,” Conrad continued to deflect the sparks, “I didn’t even know there was a deed until right now.”

“Regardless,” Byron’s smile had permanently changed to a tight, angry line, “it was meant to go to you. Father told me the deed was hidden somewhere I would never think to look for it, suggesting it was somewhere you would.”

Conrad threw his hands wide and knocked Byron back, “I have no idea, and frankly, I don’t care.”

His brother hit the wall beside where Lorelei stood and blinked. The house fell quiet, the rain echoing outside.

“Fine, a little encouragement should do the trick.” In a swift movement, Byron swam his hand in front of his face and alighted a piece of wood, splintered in their earlier scuffle, to sail through the air toward Lorelei. She gasped, the wind off of it flying past her face, but the sliver stopped just at her throat.

Conrad’s eyes went wide from across the landing. When she attempted to duck away, the spear moved with her, and Lorelei quickly stood again, holding herself as still as possible. Perhaps Byron had been sincere when suggesting he’d kill her.

“Somewhere you’d never think to look,” Conrad was glancing out the window, his voice different now, lighter, detached, “That’s what he said, huh?”

A brilliant flash of lightning followed by a crash of thunder shook the house. In its wake, the lawn behind the house was lit, revealing a massive hedge garden. Conrad turned back to his brother, “Have you been to see mom and dad?”

 

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Vacancy – 1.23 – Everything Comes With Its Cost

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

v 1.23

Lorelei’s concern that Conrad had forgotten completely–unintentionally or otherwise–about the letter from Ms. Pennycress had been erased when she found him waiting at the reception desk that morning before her shift even started. It had been two weeks since he’d suggested they visit his parent’s home, but he raised a hand to her even before she reached the bottom of the steps as if the conversation had just been moments earlier, “Avail!”

That night, after she wrangled up exactly seventeen extra pillows for a family of kumiho for fort building, and he diagnosed a banshee with RSV, respiratory supernatural virus as he’d enthusiastically explained, they took the hidden road that Lorelei drove in on the night she first came to Moonlit Shore’s Manor. With the brooch in her pocket, she held tightly to the back of Conrad’s jacket as he steered his motorbike off the main gravel drive and down a slightly narrower one into the woods.

A short drive later, they emerged in a raised clearing. The house loomed above them, cutting into the darkening, grey-blue sky as it reached upward. At its attic peak, it stood four stories, tall windows bordered with dark green shutters freckling its face. The siding had been yellow at one time, but to call it yellow now would have been an insult to the color. Detailed framework lined every edge and roof, but the patterns were obscured by thick vines, and the long shadows of the preemptively dark fall evening. A freezing gust of wind blew across them as they stared up at it, and they both pulled their coats tight, the smell of rain heavy in the air.

“This place is definitely haunted,” Lorelei found herself saying before she could stop. The memory that Conrad’s family had all perished hit her hard then, and she snapped her head toward him to apologize.

“They didn’t die here,” he told her matter-of-factly, “I mean, I’m sure someone did at some point, the house is just a few decades younger than the manor, but I don’t remember any ghosts hanging around when I was growing up.”

Lorelei began to wonder about the implication of a world where ghosts existed and people you loved had died, when she realized Conrad was already headed up the discolored steps leaving her in the increasingly dark yard. She scurried up behind him, the front porch creaking under their feet. Lorelei instantly felt uneasy, as if she were going somewhere she weren’t allowed, somewhere no one was allowed. “When was the last time you said you were here?” She wasn’t entirely sure he actually had said.

Conrad pushed the key, an ancient, rusted looking thing, into the lock then wiggled it around until it finally unlatched, “Oh, just a little while.” Inside, it was dark, and Conrad reached for a switch. He flipped on the lights, they flickered, and unceremoniously went back out. “Maybe a long while.”

From his satchel, he handed her a flashlight and flicked on his own. “What, no magic?” Lorelei feigned disappointment, lighting up her own face to show him that she was pouting exaggeratedly as he pulled the front door shut against the intensifying wind, plunging them into an even deeper darkness.

“It’s not free,” he chuckled, “Everything comes with its cost, and you never know when you’re going to really need it.”

She wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but hoped she wouldn’t find out.

The foyer was small with a single staircase headed upward and a narrow hall beside it, and under different circumstances, it would have been inviting. It was not unkempt, but it was obvious no one was maintaining the place, a layer of dust over the once reflective surface of an accent table, and the landscape painting hanging above at a slight angle.

Lorelei shined her light over the archways that lead further into the house, casting long shadows across the strips of the rooms she could make out. They moved eerily in the steady wake of her light, as if the entire space were waving back at her, then there was a flutter of movement just at the edge of her beam, and she yelped, dropping the light and jumping behind Conrad.

He turned, quickly panning over the area “What? What is it?”

“I thought I saw,” she squinted back into the room, peering out from behind him. “Nothing,” she took a big breath, “I’m sorry, guess I’m just jumpy.”

He glanced over his shoulder at her. She was gripping his arm. “That’s all right.”

She groaned at herself and let him go, picking up the flashlight and taking a step further into the house. “It’s okay, I’m tough,” she snorted, turning her back on the darkness of the hall to face him, “I’ve dealt with ghosts, trow, werewolves: this is nothing!”

A crack of thunder ripped through the house, and the place lit up so bright they were blinded. Lorelei threw herself at Conrad again, this time into his chest. Her heart was beating a mile a minute, and she didn’t dare move until she got her breath under control. When she finally pulled back, she looked up at him. This time there was a hint of panic on his face, and he stood stockstill.

“Sorry!” she took another step back, her heart still racing. Rain began to plunk against the front windows in thick drops. There would be no going back now.

Conrad cleared his throat and stood a bit straighter, “No, no, it’s fine.” He took a couple steps forward then stopped, “Did you say werewolves?”

Lorelei shook her head quickly, “Nope, I don’t think so.”

Shrugging, Conrad stuck his head through to the dining room directly off the foyer. A table that sat eight, surrounded with high-backed chairs took up the space, with a bar at the back of the room, and a glass-doored hutch. “Yup, just like I remember.”

“So you live full-time at the manor just like us? You don’t come back here?”

“I moved into the cottage with Arista and Seamus right after my parents died,” he crossed the foyer and peeked into what looked to be a receiving parlor with stiff-backed furniture and an ashy fireplace, “I was only eleven, so it made sense. I moved into the manor proper at about sixteen just to get some space. I used to come back here sometimes, but eventually stopped.”

“Eleven?” Lorelei followed him, “I didn’t know you were so young.”

He flipped through a stack of books on the small table in the room’s center, “It didn’t feel like it. Not afterward anyway.”

Lorelei ran her light over the outer rim of the space. An upright piano sat in the corner, painted teal and pink, beside it mismatched but fancifully upholstered chairs, and across the room shelving filled with knick-knacks. There was a feeling here, faint, but pulsing. Something felt alive, even joyful.

“It’s probably been two, maybe three years since I’ve been inside. I’ve ridden up here, but didn’t have the guts to come back in.”

Lorelei watched him pass through another archway. His flashlight illuminated just enough of his face for her to confirm the sadness she’d heard in his voice. She went up to him and hesitated, wanting to put a hand on his shoulder.

“But look, we’re here!” he smiled and flicked the flashlight all over the space, illuminating a mirror on the opposite wall so that shadows looked like they moved across every surface.

She smiled uneasily back, the skittering shadows making her pull into herself as another clap of thunder roared above them. “Right, so what exactly should we be looking for?”

“Well, my parents had a lot of stuff–old stuff, weird stuff–passed down through the family, and I’m hoping that something will give us a clue about the brooch, the letter, maybe even the society.”

“So just rifle through your heirlooms?”

“Basically.”

Where they stood appeared to be a library, bookshelves lining every wall and comfy seating in its center. Amongst the barely legible spines sat what she assumed were some of the heirlooms, an elephant carved from wood, a jade dragon, a taxidermied crow. The shelves themselves were almost as beautiful as the artifacts, stained dark with ornate corners and built into the wall with intricate floral details that complimented the wallpaper. “This place is really beautiful,” she called over her shoulder as she ran a finger along a thin piece of notched wood atop a stand, “I know you’re not comfortable here, but it’d be a shame to let the house just sort of…die, ya know? Maybe if you did some upgrades to it or restored it you’d feel more at home?”

“You really think it’s nice?” he came in and looked around, grabbing a book off the shelf, “Britney says I should demolish it.”

“What?” Lorelei stomped, and lightning flashed into the room. Conrad jumped, but she wasn’t sure from what. “That’s insane!” she crossed her arms and frowned at the idea, then she grit her teeth and sighed, “Well, unless she thinks you’d be happier for it. Maybe that’s not totally insane.”

Conrad rolled his eyes, “No, I’m pretty sure she just thinks it’s old and gross.”

She watched him thoughtlessly leaf though the book with one hand wanting to ask how he really felt about that, but instead chewed her lip and pulled a book down herself. The pages were in a language she didn’t know, and the drawing she came upon, a black and white etching of a group of people standing in a circle around a shining orb, had her even more confused. She peeked up at Conrad again. He was staring at the shelves, but not really looking at anything.

“So what did you parents do?” she asked, forcing a lilt into her voice.

“Mom was a midwife, actually, and my dad was just wealthy, I guess.” He chuckled, gesturing to the objects on the case, “He traveled a lot, collected things, and managed the manor along with Arista.”

“I’m assuming that was passed down through your family too?”

“Yup,” he shone his flashlight in the upper corners of the room’s vaulted ceilings, “Arista and my father grew up here, but she had the cottage built shortly after my mom came into the picture. Didn’t get along, big surprise.”

“Shocking,” Lorelei flicked her light through the doorway into a massive kitchen. The room was also filled with shelves holding curios. “Man, there’s a lot of stuff here,” she mused, taking a few careful steps onto the tile. When she glanced back at Conrad, he was carefully opening a drawer, sweeping his eyes over its contents, and closing it again. “And you don’t seem to be looking very hard for anything.”

“Um, well,” he scratched the back of his neck, “that’s probably because I have a good feeling where we ought to look, and I’m just avoiding it.”

“Oh?” she turned her light onto him with a half smile, “and where might that be?”

“My father’s study. If there’s something here, that’s where we’ll find it.”

“Where the sword came from?” she both dreaded and delighted at his pending answer, “Upstairs?”

“Yup,” he was eyeing the entry hall, “I just wasn’t really allowed in there as a kid, so…”

She turned abruptly and headed for the stairs at the front of the house, passing him with a smirk, “You have issues.”

Conrad scoffed after her, “Says the woman who left someone at the altar.”

“We’re not talking about that right now,” she flicked her light over her shoulder so that he had to shield his eyes from it. Her biggest, well, second biggest secret had been brought to light the week prior, but no one had spoken of it since, and she’d hoped it had been forgotten.

“Oh, but I think I am,” his voice floated up the stairs behind her as she tried to escape it. She took the stairs a little faster than she would have otherwise in the dark, but stopped at the landing. “How does one manage to get so close to saying ‘I do’ and then change their mind? I’ve been meaning to ask.”

She glared at him as he came to stand next to her. He was grinning, and though annoyed, she had to fight back her own smile, “It’s complicated.”

The rain was louder here, echoing from the top of the stairwell at the attic. The second floor’s landing had four doorways off of it and another set of ascending stairs. With the doors open, Lorelei glanced into them and saw one had a single bed and the trappings of a young boy’s room. “Yours?”

Conrad lingered in the doorway before stepping in, “Yeah. Well, when I was a kid.”

“You liked dinosaurs?” She stood on the threshold, shining her light over three stick figures on the dresser, well loved. Something about a warlock being interested in the prehistoric amused her.

“Still do,” he picked up the triceratops and inspected it, then pointed it at her, “I mean, how can you not?” The room appeared complete and untouched as if he brought nothing with him when he left to live with his aunt and uncle. “I didn’t make them fight though, I used to pretend they were trying to figure out how to not go extinct. Ya know, I think this one and this one were even married.”

When he raised an eyebrow at her she grunted and turned out of the room, “Which of these is the study?”

Conrad groaned loudly, “None of them,” and motioned up the next staircase.

Thunder rattled the house. Lorelei sighed, “Of course.”

The third floor was more open, with a larger landing and a small seating area by a window. Outside, rain pelted the glass and a flash of lightning illuminated a doorway on either side, one open onto a bedroom with an over-sized four poster bed and downy bedding. Across the landing another door was closed, but only just.

Conrad stopped, slowly panning his light around the frame.

She could feel his hesitation, “What’s wrong?”

“I was almost certain we’d have to pop the lock off. I don’t remember this door ever being open.”

She tried to sound confident, but her voice hitched, “How, uh–how else would Arista have gotten the sword?”

Conrad took a few careful steps up to the door, and Lorelei stayed on his heels. Pushing it open with the head of his light, he illuminated the room. Unlike the rest of the house, still neat even if dusty and aged, this space stood in stark contrast. The floor and desk were covered in tattered papers. Drawers had been scattered from their homes, contents spilt on the floor and left wherever they landed, and shelves had been cleared, pieces of what once lined them unidentifiable now.

“Dad was a little messy, I guess?”

“This can’t be right,” he strode in amongst the papers, looking around frantically, “There’s no way it was left like this.”

Lorelei took a few steps into the room, and though she was careful, managed to crunch something underfoot. Shining her light on the floor, she found a framed photo of a woman and two boys, one a toddler, and the other a pre-teen, the glass of the frame shattered long before she’d gotten there.

“Finally broke into daddy’s study, huh?”

Lorelei spun, shocked to see a man leaning haphazardly against the door frame in her light’s beam. He wore a large, dark coat, but she could see he was slim beneath, tall, and with dark hair and light eyes that were strangely familiar. Stumbling backward, she shot a look at Conrad. That was it–he wore his hair cropped short with a clean-shaven face and a look like he knew something that could ruin you, but he looked enough like Conrad to be related. Even brothers.

 

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Vacancy – 1.22 – More Than Luck

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

v 1.22

The knot in Lorelei’s stomach was monstrous and heavy. It was hardly fair, she’d thought, giving Grace an afternoon to do what she imagined nymphs would take weeks to complete, but her fiance’s family was firm in their decision: in order to approve the union of their son, a nymph, to Grace, a satyr, she must receive a blessing from Nature–yes, capital N–itself.

This was rather run of the mill for her husband-to-be’s kind. They would write an appeal, in the form of a poem, and read it aloud to the forest. If acceptable, and according to Andros, there was rarely, if ever, an instance where it had not been acceptable, Nature would display its approval. As the nymph explained it, the onlookers would take almost anything as a sign: rain meant Nature wept with joy, a stiff breeze symbolized the urge to hurry up and get on with it, and there was even a case where the reader was unceremoniously shat on by a bird mid-recitation resulting in the listeners cheering that Nature didn’t need them to finish in order to give its blessing.

Still, Lorelei fidgeted as she stood amongst the tall and lanky nymphs, as much a physical outcast as Grace herself with her short stature and plain clothes. They looked out on the satyr, standing at the edge of Moonlit Shores Manor’s forest. “A poem?” she’d blurted out when they told her, “You want me to write a poem?”

“Iambic pentameter is customary,” Belen had said with a smirk, “but you’re free to stray to dactylic hexameter or whatever you please. I’ve even heard an acceptable free verse or two in my time.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” she’d said worriedly, her eyes bouncing back from Belen to Andros, but her fiance put a hand on her arm, and insisted it would be fine. Never had there not been a sign, as signs were largely whatever the onlookers decided upon. Still, Lorelei feared the worst.

The satyr bit her lip and clenched a torn sheet of notebook paper from her spot atop a rock. They had, begrudgingly, granted her the great advantage of a cheat sheet, but insisted it was tradition for the betrothed to not be present. Ziah had perhaps smartly not allowed any of their other coworkers to attend, instructing Conrad and Grier to serve as protectors while Andros took part in the satyr trial for approval. Oddly enough, however, Ren had accompanied Ziah here to the woods, but Lorelei couldn’t help but think Grace needed a bit more support, and she offered the satyr a smile and a thumbs up.

Grace turned away from them to address the wood, her hooves clanking on the rock. A sound, small and barely audible, floated out toward the trees. It was something like a voice, but the words were ambiguous.

“Project, my dear,” Belen, Andros’s father, instructed her to snickers from a handful of the nymphs. Lorelei sneered at him, but he didn’t notice, and likely would not have cared if he did.

Grace’s shoulders raised and dropped with a deep breath and she cleared her throat:

There once was a girl from Santorini
She weren’t smart, or talented, or pretty
She spent most of her days
Feeling lots of different ways
But not once did she feel love so fiercely

Then she met a boy who made her heart swell
And they knew against all they had to rebel
He swept her off her feet
Only with him she felt complete
And that’s the happy ending she hopes to tell

There was a long moment of quiet when she finished. Lorelei raised her hands to clap, but Ziah grabbed her wrist to stop her. Instead, she glanced at Andros’s family, standing stark still, waiting, but she noted Kasia, Andros’s mother, was smiling.

There was movement in the grass, like snakes slithering across the forest floor, headed for the assembled. Long and brilliantly green, they climbed from the roots of the trees and to the rock that Grace stood atop. She gasped, spinning around, surrounded, and the onlookers did as well, muttering in shock about how this was unprecedented. But the snakes gave way, revealing themselves to be vines, moving of their own free will, encircling the rock and coating it in greenery to the very edges of Grace’s feet.

Then the vines burst forth with blooms, pink, purple, blue, yellow, each brighter than the last and painting the entirety of the rock. A single stem shot upward, reaching just to Grace’s chest where it stopped, the bud at its end twirling as it bloomed brilliantly red before her, illuminating her already blushing face with a warm glow.

The nymphs fell silent, but only for an instant, and then one shouted, the loudest Lorelei had heard any of them, that it was a sign. The others joined in with cheers and approving words, and only Belen’s mouth stayed set in a tight frown, narrowing eyes at the girl. Kasia laid a hand on his shoulder, “Nature has given its blessing.”

Back at the manor, Grace could not stop smiling as the nymphs took turns congratulating her and telling her they had never seen such a display, but she was determined to see Andros. With newly found confidence, she burst into the sitting room where her family stood in a circle. The furniture had been pulled back away from the room’s center, even the sleeping old man’s rocker was nestled up against the wall though he continued to snore as if nothing had happened, and in its place, a single table and two chairs.

Yaya, Grace’s grandmother, sat across from Andros, hunched over the table with a glass grasped in hand. Her mouth drooped and her eyes were hollow, but she snorted at the boy, “Another!”

Grace’s father stood between the two holding a bottle of clear liquid. He hesitated.

“I said, another!” Yaya slurred, banging her glass on the table.

Andros also lifted his, “You heard the lady.” While Yaya looked like she might fall right out of her chair, Andros sat up straight, grinning.

“Yaya!” Grace shouted, stomping toward them, “What are you thinking? How much of that stuff have you had?”

Her father held up the bottle, large enough to hold at least a liter, to show it was only half gone, but then her brother held up another identical but empty jug.

“That stuff’s like poison!” Grace pushed her way across the room to Andros and knelt beside the table, “Are you all right?”

“Sweetheart,” a satyr from the group laughed, “Ain’t no one ever been more all right than your beau here!” The others nodded and bleated.

“I feel great,” Andros held his glass up to Grace’s father again, “If you wouldn’t mind, sir?”

Grace’s father obliged, filling both glasses and stepping back, the color already drained from his face.

Andros downed the cup, eyes closed, and gently placed it back on the table. He took a deep breath and the satyrs held their own, then Andros belched, and they cheered.

Yaya growled, holding her own full glass up to her lips, “Boy, I don’t know how you done this,” she was blinking, but her lids weren’t working in unison, “but I reckon–” she swayed to the left, catching herself on the table. “Boy, I reckon,” again she swayed, this time to the right, barely grabbing hold of her chair to stay upright, “I reckon–” Yaya thrust her glass forward, the liquid in it sloshing, and then she froze. Her eyes crossed, she mumbled incoherently, and collapsed onto the table, the glass spilling and liquid hissing across the wood.

The satyrs cheered, gathering around Andros and grabbing the legs of his chair. Grace jumped back as they lifted him and paraded him about the room. After confirming Yaya was, in fact, not dead, her father scoffed, “Ain’t nobody ever beat Maw,” and he went up to Kasia who had come to check on the racket. “Ma’am,” he offered her his hand, “I would be honored to have your son as part of the Nomia family.”

Kasia giggled, “And I see in your Grace the daughter I always wanted.”

Lorelei could barely believe her eyes and skirted the room to where Conrad and Grier sat on the couch up against the far wall. They both looked a little dazed and when she greeted them, they were slow to respond.

“Oh, hey!” Conrad tried to stand, but his feet slipped out from under him, and he slumped back onto the couch. Laughing, he slapped Grier’s chest with the back of his hand, “Hey, hey, look it’s Lor–” he stopped abruptly, covering his mouth, his eyes suddenly huge.

Grier’s head lolled back and he closed his eyes, “Hi, Laaar.”

“What’s happening?” she glanced about to be sure the satyrs were still preoccupied with Andros.

“It’s fine,” Conrad nodded in slow motion, “You’re going to have to leave us here for a while though.”

Lorelei took a step back from them, “Do I want to know?”

Conrad was shaking his head then, again painfully slowly, as if he were trying to keep his balance though he was sitting.

Lorelei turned and, with a smile, ushered the group out of the room.

By nightfall, Yaya had recovered well enough to begin a shouting match with Belen when they happened upon one another in the upstairs hallway while the rest of their families celebrated together in the dining room. Lorelei happened upon them and shooed them downstairs into the foyer where they continued to rant to one another, declaring their disapproval.

“Then leave,” Grace’s no longer tiny voice sounded from the doorway.

Andros stood at her side, “We gave you more than either of you deserved. We wish you could be happy for us, but if you cannot, then so be it.”

Belen and Yaya fell silent, staring back at the two with stony faces. Yaya opened her mouth, but Grace stopped her, “You heard him–git!”

Belen turned to Yaya and began shouting at her that this was her fault, and she spewed anger right back, but when Lorelei opened the front door, they both stormed out it. Their voices carried on into the night as they stalked across the yard until they could no longer be heard.

***

The wedding was to take place the next morning in the manor’s back garden. Lorelei was pleased with the set up that she helped Ziah put together even with Arista shouting at them the entire time. As the guests took their seats, she and Ziah hurried inside to see if there was anything else Grace needed, but were shocked at what they were met with.

A crying Grace, just like how Lorelei had first found her, sat on the edge of her bed. When they questioned what happened, a young nymph pointed to the far wall and the dress bag that hung there. It had been unzipped and inside instead of a gown, tattered white fabric hung limply from the hanger, spilling out onto the floor.

Lorelei went to the tatters, mouth agape, “There’s got to be someone here who can, like, magic this back together.”

“In time to walk down the aisle?” Ziah was behind her, whispering into her ear, “Doubtful.”

Grace sniffed, “No, it doesn’t matter.” Dressed in a slip, she began digging into her suitcase, throwing skirts and blouses across the room, I’ve got something, I’m sure of it. It doesn’t matter what I wear!”

“I might have something,” the nymph sat back, thinking hard, “It’s mostly pink, but maybe?”

Lorelei stood slowly, “I can fix this.”

“Lore,” Ziah cautioned under her breath, “I really don’t think we can.”

“No,” Lorelei smiled, “I can fix this.” She felt her feet flying before she knew what she was doing. In a flash she descended the stairs and hit the foyer, nearly tripping out the front door. At her car, she threw open the trunk, tossing aside her belongings until she found it.

In an instant she was back inside and thundering up the stairs, catching her breath in the doorway to Grace’s room. She couldn’t speak and instead just held out the garment bag, urging the satyr to take it.

Grace unzipped the bag and white tulle spilled out. Wordlessly, she pulled the wedding gown from the bag and held it up to herself. “How?”

Still panting, Lorelei shook her head with a smile then shrugged.

***

“Okay, how’d you do it?” Ziah was drumming her fingers on the table, eying Lorelei with hawklike intensity. The party had gone on all day and into the evening, and finally the new Aristaeus-Nomia clan had retired leaving Lorelei and her co-workers scattered around a table in the garden amidst empty serving trays and place settings. When she didn’t answer, Ziah leaned in closer, “I know it’s not your forte, magicking up dresses, so how did you do it?” It was clear she was at least a little tipsy.

Hotaru was suddenly staring at her with the same intensity, “What does she mean? Magicking up dresses?” They all learned that Grace’s dress had been shredded by Belen, and similarly the rings had been stolen by Yaya, but only when both Belen and Yaya returned after the ceremony. They two were distraught and after spending the night lost in the woods had seen the error in their ways, confessing to the wedding party. Though Grace and Andros were prepared to be wed in t-shirts and utilizing candy rings, replacements for all had been provided, seemingly, by a miracle.

“Uh,” Lorelei shrank back in her chair, hoping against hope it would not come up.

Conrad and Grier perked up despite the headaches they’d been nursing all day, and even Ren cocked his head so that one long ear was pointed toward her. “Wait,” Grier rubbed at his eyes, his voice hoarse, “So Lorelei did magic?”

“It wasn’t magic,” she said quickly amongst mixed company who knew and did not know her secret, “It was just luck. You know, the same way Grace was able to get Nature to give her blessing or how Andros held his liquor so well.”

Ren reached a long arm across the table and picked a bloom from the centerpiece. He held it before his face between two fingers, and from the stem, roots grew, long and thick, and the bloom itself multiplied. A moment later he was holding a bouquet. Of course, she thought to herself, It’s why Ziah had insisted he go to the forest with them.

Lorelei blinked, turning to Conrad and Grier, “And you two, you were drunk!”

The warlock put a finger to his lips, wincing from her shout, “Transference. It’s complicated, but not difficult with multiple willing subjects.”

Lorelei sighed. She had to tell them. “I had the dress in my car. It was mine.” Lorelei took in their faces, a range of confusion until she saw Ziah’s realization and the woman’s instant regret at having said anything at all. “I was sort of supposed to get married,” she told them, studying the grain of the wooden table with intensity, “but instead I just kinda drove past the church and I ended up, well, here.” When no one spoke she swallowed, “They did think it was really weird I wanted to drive myself, and in hindsight I can see that.”

“You’re a runaway bride.” Grier was grinning from ear to ear, the bastard.

Lorelei cringed, but nodded.

“That’s why,” Ziah was staring past her and up at the manor, illuminated in the darkness. “No,” she smiled, “That was more than luck. That was magic.”

 

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Vacancy – 1.21 – A Long History

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

v 1.21

The scene that met Lorelei far outweighed the slight kerfuffle she thought she heard from behind the front desk. Helpless, she stood on the threshold to the dining room looking in on flying cups, plates, and people. There was shouting, glass shattering, tables being upended, and perhaps worst of all, a young woman crying into her hands in the midst of it all.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” Conrad was saying as he rolled up his sleeves, “There are too many of them to stun.”

Ziah ducked, a teacup missing her temple by inches and shattering against the foyer’s hardwoods, “I’ll take whatever you can manage.”

From his pocket, he pulled open a sachet full of sand and tossed its contents into the air, then with a snap, the scene came to a halt.

Like a living painting, the guests were frozen in place, hovering in mid air with hands pulled back into fists. Saucers and bowls were suspended between them, their contents like brush strokes in the air. But Lorelei could see they weren’t entirely frozen; the guests were moving, just barely, at a pace almost imperceptible.

Grier nudged her, “It’s a lot neater when you’re not a part of it.”

The sand Conrad had thrown collected itself above them to mimic an hourglass near the upper frame of the door. “You’ve got about ten minutes,” he told them.

Ziah hurried into the room and began collecting some of the flying cutlery as she chastised the party. The guests, of course, could not respond, but their eyes moved wildly in their sockets and Lorelei remembered the feeling of being frozen herself. It had been unpleasant, the aftermath even more so.

“So what happened here?” Conrad asked, righting a table.

Gathering up a splash of potato and leek soup from the air, Lorelei pointed to the sobbing woman with a spoon, “I’m not sure, but I bet she could tell us.”

With another snap just before her face, the girl came to life, her cries audible now with the ruckus of the room silenced. Her shoulders shook, then she sniffed and sat up, uncovering her face. Blinking, the young woman looked about the room with growing realization. She had dark eyes and a round, sun-kissed face, long, tightly curled amber hair, and to Lorelei’s surprise, a matching amber goatee encircling full lips.

“Oh my,” she sniffed again, worrying the hem of her dress in her hand as she stood revealing legs covered in fur and feet that were not feet at all but hooves, “This has turned out just awful.”

As Lorelei safely piled a stack of dishes on a rolling cart that Hotaru had hesitantly brought in, she took note of the other guests. Many looked like the girl with goat-like lower halves and facial hair indiscriminate of gender, and some even had horns in varying shape and length. The others she recognized from checking them in that morning, remembering how odd it had been there were so many lithe, delicate-featured men and women staying that day. In stark contrast to the horned-guests in their more outlandishly colored coats and intricately braided beards, the others were dressed in lighter, gossamer fabrics and wore their hair long and loose, but the ire on the assorted faces was one in the same.

“What’s turned out awful?” Ziah was adjusting one of the guest’s arms so that it was no longer inches from connecting with another guest’s jaw.

“This was supposed to be a happy time, the happiest day of our lives,” she looked longingly at one of the other guests, “But they just can’t get along, not even for one measly weekend!”

“Oh no,” Ziah nearly dropped the casserole dish she was collecting from the air onto the head of the very guest she was attempting to save, “The Aristaeus-Nomia wedding. Don’t tell me your fiance is–”

“A nymph.” She walked up to a group of frozen guests and slipped her hand around the arm of a thin, tall man who appeared to have been holding back another of his kind. He had skin the color of rich soil and small, pointed features set on a long face.

Conrad came around to them and snapped him back into life as well. He stumbled, then took up his fiance’s hands in his own. “My love, please don’t cry.” The woman nodded, but tears still spilled over her cheeks, and he wiped them away.

Ziah led the couple out in to the foyer, motioning for Lorelei to follow, and closed the double doors to the dining room behind them all. “The manor was booked for two family reunions this weekend and one wedding. I don’t know how I didn’t see it,” Ziah had a hand on her forehead, “What were you guys thinking?”

The man began, “We did invite them here under false pretenses–”

“You booked them under false pretenses too!” Ziah’s lips were drawn into a tight frown.

“We did,” he conceded, “but we needed it to be believable for our families.”

“We really thought that once we had them all together here if we could just talk to them, just show them how much we love one another, that they’d be happy for us.” The woman’s voice was ragged, and they both leaned against each other, hands clasped.

“I don’t understand,” Lorelei glanced back the the dining room door, hoping the others could clean the mess and separate the guests before they became unstunned, “What’s the big deal? You guys seem happy.”

“Nymph,” Ziah pointed at the man and then at the woman, “Satyr. Their kind have a long history of hating one another. We’re talking major rivalry.”

“To be fair, there is a lot of history between our kind,” the man said, “but those things happened thousands of years ago, and everyone has just held onto the hate.”

Ziah crossed her arms, nervously glancing back at the dining room, “Why don’t you two just elope?”

“Our families are important to us. We hated each other when we met too. We thought it was in our blood. But then the stars aligned,” she sighed and looked up at her fiance, “Andros was so brave in the drakon pits.”

“And Grace was our savior in the labyrinth.” He kissed her on the top of her head, “We fell in love, and we hoped our families could see that. The hate they have for one another is baseless, there’s no reason why they can’t be civil for one day.”

Lorelei felt a heaviness in her heart, “There must be something we can do.”

“Us?” Ziah looked at her wide-eyed, “End a millenia-long feud?”

“Well, I mean, not for all of them, but for these two families? Maybe? It means a lot to them, and I can’t imagine Charmed folk can really afford to be so hateful of each other.”

“You’d be surprised,” Ziah rubbed her chin, “They do have the whole place booked, so they won’t be disturbing any other guests.” She rounded on the two, standing a bit straighter, “Lorelei is right: here at Moonlit Shores Manor we strive to serve our guests to the best of our abilities. Our resident warlock is good, and he may be able to hold some of your family at bay long enough for you to talk things out, but I can’t make any promises. Grab any decision makers your might have and we’ll see what we can do.”

***

The white room was set with a long, glass table in its center, high-backed leather chairs lining either side, and bright fluorescents overhead. Lorelei sat beside Grace at one end, eyeing a nervous Conrad at the other. An elderly woman with horns that curled around the sides of her face–the longest and most curled of any of the guests–sat along one side of the table, Grace’s grandmother and the de facto matriarch of the Nomia clan. Grace’s father and brother sat beside her.

Andros entered the white room with Ziah, behind him trailing three willowy beings. Immediately, Grace’s grandmother jumped to her cloven feet, “That’s the one who hit me in the face with lemon tart! Let me at him!” She was not at all frail for an old thing, and she reached into her over-sized bag and flung a container of mashed potatoes at the group.

The spuds bounced off an invisible barrier that lined the center of the white room. Conrad flinched, then smiled when no one ended up covered in food again.

“There will be no fighting on the premises. This is your one chance to make this work,” Ziah warned, taking a seat at the table’s other end.

“We are no longer interested in making anything work with the likes of them.” The tallest of the family turned back to the door.

“Father!” Andros rounded on him, “You said you would at least hear us out!”

The man sighed, “I did, didn’t I?” He took a careful seat across from Grace’s grandmother, sitting stiff and tall. The man clasped his hands before him, long slender fingers coming to rest just under his chin, “You may proceed.”

“Oh, he thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow, don’t he?” Grace’s grandmother fell back into her chair, snarling, and her family nodded and scoffed in agreement.

Lorelei’s stomach turned over: it was already not going well, and Ziah was eyeing her from across the room with panic.

“Yaya,” Grace put a cautioning tone in her voice as she addressed her grandmother, “This is Andros’s father, Belen. He sits on the Council of Divine Spirits.”

“Whoopdedoo,” Yaya mumbled.

“And his wife, Kasia, also on the council, and?”

Andros cleared his throat, “And Kal, another senior member of the Council,” he finished for her, “Father, this is Grace’s grandmother, the leader of her clan, her father Caleb, and brother Rex. They are her closest family, and she cherishes them.”

The nymphs simply stared back.

“Andros and I are in love,” Grace broke in, “We are not asking y’all to become best friends, we just want a peaceful ceremony with your blessings.”

“Did she just say y’all?” Belen’s lip was upturned.

“Father!”

Belen groaned in the back of his throat, but attempted to reign himself in, “Marrying a nymph means granting great prestige on another being. We are not opposed to intermarriages, but a satyr is unprecedented.”

“Well, it ain’t no disgrace to marry a satyr neither! If that boy wanted to be my granddaughter’s husband, he’d need to prove himself worthy!” Yaya was red in the face as she shouted across the table, but she managed to keep herself seated.

“I think we are not in disagreement about this,” Kasia spoke at last, placing a hand on her husband’s elbow, “Though it has fallen out of favor, traditionally our kind have requested not individual blessings, but blessings from Nature itself when making grand decisions. Perhaps your Grace would be willing to take part in a small ceremony as trial for approval?”

Grace’s father sputtered, “Trial for approval? Grace is the smartest, sweetest, most prettiest satyr this side of the Achelous. She don’t need to prove nothing!”

“Now, wait just a minute,” Yaya waved away her son, “Little Miss Froofroo over here ain’t suggesting the worst idea I ever heard.”

Kasia sniffed, “I’m not sure whether to be offended or not.”

“Trials for both of ‘em is what I’m getting at!” Yaya smirked at Andros, then eyed his father, “I’ll happily marry ‘em myself if your boy can prove he’s a worth satyr suitor.”

Belen too stood, pausing a long moment to look over the family. “This seems acceptable.”

It should have been a joyous moment, but the room felt tense. Belen wore a tight frown and Yaya was smirking with a wicked sort of delight. Only Grace looked to be happy.

Yaya brought her palm up to her mouth and spit on it then extended her hand to Belen. The nymph stared at it, then glanced at Conrad and gave a curt nod. He took the barrier down with a wave of his hand and a flash of light, and the two shook.

 

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Vacancy – 1.20 – Better Off Not Knowing

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

v 1.20

Well after the sun had risen the next morning, Lorelei was shocked to see Ziah and her siblings pile in through the front door. They were shouting and laughing, and when the sun filtered in behind them, their golden skin lit up, sparkling like precious stones.

“I just keep remembering the look on his face,” Ziah mocked what she’d seen, jaw dropped, eyes bugged, “Priceless!”

The lot of them devolved into giggles, and then Farrah took a deep breath, “Well, I know how to wrap up my thesis now.”

“Great!” Kamille punched her in the arm, “I think I’m going to go run a quick 10k.”

Altair nodded, “I’ll join you.”

With smiles plastered on their faces, they sprinted off up the stairs, and Malachai set his sights on Lorelei, “Well, good morning!”

“You were out all night,” Lorelei looked from one enthused face to the other, “How are you not exhausted?”

“It was a rather good night,” Ziah smirked, revealing sparkling white teeth, “But I do have some work to do.” She turned to her brother, “And you need to stay out of trouble while I’m at it. Understand?”

“Of course, of course,” he managed a sneaky wink at Lorelei when Ziah turned away, “I’ll just be up in my room, composing, arranging, blah blah blah.”

They parted ways in the foyer, leaving a shocked Lorelei in their wake.

“Who was that?” Britney was standing in the entryway, looking after Malachai. She leaned against the door, twirling a curl around her finger.

“Ziah’s brother,” Lorelei offered, though she hated to do so. She didn’t want Britney to know him, she didn’t want Britney to even look at him.

“Nice,” she licked her lips, then walked past her without another word, taking the hall to the basement stairs.

When lunch time came, Lorelei was greeted with a still peppy and smiling Ziah. The woman regaled her quickly with the tasks she’d completed, some of which were Lorelei’s for later in the day, and even presented her with a sandwich she’d made. To Lorelei’s surprise, she hadn’t slept at all and was planning to keep going right through the day, shooing her away to take her break with a final word, “Lorelei, I truly am sorry about before. I know you’re capable of taking care of yourself and free to make whatever decisions you want.” Confused, Lorelei just nodded, but didn’t really have time for questions as there was something else she wanted to do.

Lorelei found Conrad in his office pouring over a stack of papers. She watched him from the doorway for a long minute as he tapped his pen on the table, shook his head, and marked the page, muttering something to himself with a long sigh. She remembered seeing Britney earlier, but didn’t find her as she glanced around the room. Taking a step inside, she did hear the faint sound of running water coming from the room beyond the office.

“Well, hey,” Conrad put down his pen when he realized she was there.

“Hi,” she gave him a little wave, the spicy smell of the room waking up her senses, “Are you busy?”

“These are just tests,” he pushed the papers to the side, “It’s a slow day: nobody’s getting sick.”

“Bummer,” she chuckled, “but that means you might have a couple minutes to spare?”

“Sure,” he nodded and stood, striding over to her, “What do you want to do?”

Lorelei laughed again, his enthusiasm adorable, then she stopped abruptly at that word in her mind. I’m out of control, she thought, feeling Malachai’s earlier presence had something to do with how she was feeling.

“Look at this,” she pulled the letter from her pocket and went to hand it to him, then hesitated, “I guess I should tell your first. You know the lady who left me the note that opened the safety deposit box? I sent her a letter for more information on the brooch, and she wrote me back.”

“Oh,” his face fell slightly, and he read the note with a furrowed brow, “That’s ominous.”

“Right?” she took the paper when he handed it back, “So this doesn’t mean anything to you?”

“About as much as it means to you, but I am familiar with that acronym,” Conrad tapped his lip in thought a moment, “I went looking through a box of stuff from my parents’ house after we went to the bank.”

“Your parents’ house?” she followed him across the room to a large cabinet with a pair of cranes carved into the doors.

“Well, I guess it’s my house now, I just don’t really stay there.” He removed a cardboard box, open with miscellany sticking out, and set it on the desk with a clang, “I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but there is this.”

Long and metallic, it caught the light as he pulled it from the box and offered it to her.

“Conrad,” she stared at him blankly, “that’s a sword.”

When she didn’t take it, he turned and held it over his head and against the wall, “It used to hang in my father’s office over his desk. I wasn’t sure why Arista brought it here after…the thing, but it’s been in one box or another ever since.”

Lorelei assumed by the thing he meant his parents’ death. She watched him lower the sword and place it beside the ragged cardboard box and atop the stack of crinkled papers. It was particularly good at catching the light, and even the candles’ flames danced in its reflection.

“There’s an inscription here, on the hilt,” he pointed to the handle where in metal the words were etched:

Avail
OoO

Lorelei had certainly never seen a sword in person before, at least never close enough to touch, but Conrad had handled it like it had been an old crock pot. She bit a lip, “So is having a sword normal for you people?”

“Maybe?” he squinted, “I never thought about it before. It’s just, well, my mother always said there would be others.” He was staring down at the hilt still like it was telling him the story. “I remember yelling at my father, saying I didn’t want to be part of his secret society if he wasn’t going to tell me about it beforehand. It was a stupid argument that kid me thought made perfect sense. Anyway, my mom tried to make me feel better about the whole thing. She said there would be others to take my place. She said it would find them.”

“That’s really…cryptic,” Lorelei scrunched up her face. They stared at one another for a moment, then Lorelei heard the water shut off. She wanted desperately to stay, but wanted even more to not see Britney again, at least not while she was alone with her boyfriend. “I gotta get back,” she told him quickly, knowing she was betraying her anxiety with her eyes, and tried to make up an excuse, “Ziah’s family is visiting, and she’s being a little weird.”

“Ziah’s family?” he raised an eyebrow, “Here? At the manor?”

She nodded.

“Did you, uh,” he cleared his throat, “meet them?”

Nodding again, she looked at him sidelong, unsure what he was really asking.

“There actually might be something of interest at the house,” he said, surprising her with the change of subject, “It’s been awhile, but if you want, we could go check out the place.”

“That would be awesome,” Lorelei was instantly drawn to the idea for reasons she wasn’t entirely sure she could place, but then heard shuffling from the other room, “I gotta get back to the desk though, for now.”

“Wait. Are you, uh, doing anything tonight?”

Lorelei stared at him as he awkwardly shuffled from one foot to the other. “Working,” she offered meekly.

“Oh, right, okay,” he shook his head, “It’s a really busy time at the academy right now anyway, and I have a lot to do. We’ll set something up later?”

“Definitely,” Lorelei smiled, slowly backing toward the door. He was still looking after her, so she gave him a thumbs up, “Okay, good talk,” and sprinted out into the hall.

***

She walked with a purpose toward the stairs and surprised herself with the speed she took them. At the room, she paused, holding the tray of covered food. What was she doing?

Somehow Lorelei knew that tray was for Malachai when she spied it on the counter that evening, and when Hotaru confirmed, she told her she’d take it up to him instead. Aggressively. Feeling emboldened, and as if she had Ziah’s blessing, Lorelei had let her feet take her there, not her mind, but now that she stood outside Malachai’s room, the door already ajar, her brain started protesting.

Was this a good time? Could it ever be? For a moment her thoughts meandered, reminding her of others. She wasn’t beholden to anybody, not anymore, so what did it matter? With silent footsteps, and a too loudly beating heart, she crept up to the door until she could just barely see inside. She spied the back of Malachai’s head as he sat, looking out the window, and rapt on the door with her knuckles.

When he didn’t respond, she meant to knock louder, to call his name, but instead she found herself inside the room, placing the tray on the dresser, and creeping up to the chair. Malachai was leaning back, eyes closed, wearing headphones with a laptop balanced on his knee. He really was handsome.

“I’m so glad you came to see me.”

Lorelei jumped back and covered her mouth to keep from screaming, and Malachai stood up with a smirk. She didn’t bother asking him how he knew she was there, it would be the same reason she was compelled to be there are all, and she knew there was no explanation. “I’m sorry,” she breathed, “I didn’t mean to–”

He slipped a hand around her wrist and pulled her to him. She took a heavy breath and smelled the subtle spices he wore, eerily familiar, felt the heat off of his body against her own, felt his breath on her face, “I’d just like to look on you a second longer, if I might.”

Lorelei lingered there, feeling her eyelids flutter down, his hand slid up her arm and around her waist, then she pressed her hands against his chest, “Ziah says you’re dangerous,” she almost giggled as she spoke, realizing how silly it sounded, “What should I be afraid of?”

“Everything.” His mouth was on hers, and she kissed him greedily back.

Then, she felt weak. If not for his arms around her, she would have fallen on the spot. Fighting to open her eyes, she let her own lip go slack until she mustered the strength to push at his chest and mumble against his mouth, “Stop.”

He immediately pulled back and released her, but quickly grabbed at her again so she did not fall to the floor. Lorelei’s head was swimming and she felt faint. “I apologize,” he looked pained, “I thought you wanted…” His voice became muffled and her vision tunneled.

Lorelei opened her eyes to find herself in her own bed, in the employee quarters. Blinking, she pushed herself up and saw Ziah sitting in the window, her figure poised against a black night sky. “You’re awake!” The woman rushed over to her and grabbed her head, pulling up her eyelids and peering into her pupils, “Do you feel alright? Can you understand what I’m saying? What’s my name? What’s your name?”

She knew the answers, but they were inconsequential. She looked down at herself, still fully clothed, then searched the room for signs of anyone else.

“He’s not here,” Ziah told her with a sigh, “but he did bring you here.”

Lorelei wiped at her face, as if she were removing the remnants of Malachai’s kiss. That kiss. She sighed, it had been so good, if only for an instant, but she remembered now. He’d carried her down the stairs and to Ziah the moment she was unable to respond to him. “I think I’m okay.”

“I should have told you right away,” Ziah began carefully, sounding out the words, “but I hoped I could keep it a secret from you.”

“I already know the big one,” Lorelei still felt foggy and leaned back, “how much worse could it get?”

“Well,” Ziah stood from the bed, wringing her hands, “It’s just, I don’t often have this conversation, not with humans anyway. And when I do they usually try to kill me.”

Her words cleared the haze from Lorelei’s mind and she sat up straight again.

Ziah began to pace, “Thing is, I’ve never been clear with you about what I am because humans tend to think I’m a…a demon or something, and I didn’t want you to think that. I wanted you to like me, you know?”

When she looked up, Lorelei could see her skin had sallowed. Drastically different from the morning, she looked like she had wiped off all of her makeup, her lips pale and cheeks pockmarked. Her hair had fallen flat and even her body seemed thinner, almost sick. “I do like you,” she told her earnestly, “You’re the closest friend I have.”

“I just need to say it,” she mumbled to herself, staring at the ground. She looked like she was trembling.

Then it hit Lorelei. “No, you don’t,” she pointed at her, “I already know.”

Ziah’s eyes went wide, her lips parted but no words came. She froze.

“Your family, with your one parent in common and your, like, freakish good looks, and your hunting, and the vibes,” she wiggled her fingers in the air, “You come back from staying out all night, and you’re totally pumped. I get it.” Lorelei nodded to herself, smiling, “You’re a vampire.”

Before Lorelei’s eyes, Ziah transformed. The color came back to her skin, her lips darkened to a wet ruby hue, her lashes even seemed to grow into heavy fans, and to her greatest surprise, the woman doubled over into laughter. Holding her stomach, she stumbled to the edge of the bed and flopped down.

“What’s going on?” Lorelei pulled her knees up to her chest, “Why is that funny?”

“Oh, it’s just that,” Ziah wiped a tear from her eye, “I never thought about it before, but yeah I can see how a human, with your movies and books, would think that.”

A bit annoyed, Lorelei slapped the bed, “Are you kidding with me right now?”

Ziah recovered, fanning her face, “I’m a succubus.”

Lorelei was sure she had heard wrong, “A suck-your-what?”

With a deep breath, the woman fully composed herself. She smoothed out her dress and tossed her tresses over a shoulder, “A succubus. And Malachai is an incubus, but same difference.”

Lorelei was quiet for a moment. She knew she had heard the term, but it had never been anything she thought she’d encounter, but then that was kind of the theme of her life lately. Then she thought back to when she first met Ziah, how the woman was enchanting and attractive, and how even she felt dangerous. “So you are a demon?”

“No! I mean, well, our ancestors originated from a hell-like dimension, but that’s besides the point. All my brothers and sisters have the ability to bring out people’s desires, embrace them, and act on them. We give people the warm fuzzies.”

“So that’s why you’re so pretty,” Lorelei was squinting at her, hard.

Ziah looked relieved, and a bit embarrassed. “We get our energy and inspiration from other beings, and one of the best ways to do that is, well, sex. We look a little different to everyone, but basically whatever features you find most attractive are going to be what you see when you look at us. It’s kind of an illusion, I guess, to fulfill that purpose.”

“I wish I could do that.”

Ziah snorted, “Well, most people think we’re just tricking them, so I appreciate that.”

“So when you say you can bring out people’s desires…”

“We can reach into you and figure out what you’re feeling, and we can intensify those feelings,” she admitted coyly, “but only if you’re already feeling that way. If you had no interest at all in Malachai, then you wouldn’t have been so drawn to him. I was really worried about you though because you’re human. You’ve got less energy to give and sometimes that ends up disastrous. Like coma or death disastrous.”

The word caught in Lorelei’s throat, “Death?”

“Malachai’s never killed anybody that I know of,” she looked a bit concerned, “but I certainly didn’t tell him you were human, and there’s a first time for everything.”

Lorelei brushed her bangs out of her face, not sure if she preferred not knowing just how much danger she was in to being acutely aware like when the werewolves had threatened her life.

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t die,” Ziah told her, patting her knee, “I would have really missed you.” Lorelei let out a huff and nodded. She would have probably missed herself as well. “Wait,” Ziah narrowed her eyes and leaned forward so that her nose was close to Lorelei’s, “How long did you think we were all vampires? Before you went to see Malachai? Weren’t you worried he might, like, you know…rip open your throat with his teeth and drain you of all your blood like a stuck pig? That he might kill you?”

Lorelei felt queasy.

“Ya know what, no, don’t answer that,” Ziah shook her head, “I feel like I’m better off not knowing.”

***

The next morning, Ziah hugged her family as they gathered in the foyer to leave. Malachai winked at Lorelei, and she nodded back at him, his charm a little less effective now. As they said their goodbyes, Farrah came thundering down the stairs with her bag slung over her shoulder. She gave Ziah a quick hug and tried to rush out the door, but was stopped by a voice on the stairs.

Grier was leaning on the railing as he slumped down to the foyer, exhaustion all over his face, but wearing a big, dopey grin nonetheless. Ziah’s jaw dropped open as she looked from the boy to her sister and back again.

Finally, Farrah could no longer contain her smirk, “He’s eighteen, he told me himself.”

As they left, Grier tried to follow in a daze, but the girl shoved him back inside. With a peck on the cheek she quickly shut the door between them, and he slid down the wall to the ground, promptly falling asleep.

 

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