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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Podcast: Vacancy 1.06 – Particularly Persuasive

Episode 1.06 – Particularly Persuasive

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

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

Vacancy Episode 1.06 uses these sounds from freesound and soundbible, all of which have been remixed. The inclusion of any sound does not indicate endorsement of this completed work or its author:

Vacancy – 1.17 – What They Were Looking For

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

v - 1.17

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

Conrad grimaced but nodded, “Most likely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It might be too late by then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my gods.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The lights went out,” Lorelei offered meagerly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Vacancy – 1.15 – Turn Around

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

V 1.15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No song.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, the water did just that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!” they were shouting in unison.

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

He raised his shoulders, his face frozen in awe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl smiled weakly, “Accident.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Terrible?” she frowned, “Really?”

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

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

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

 

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Vacancy – 1.14 – Something Stupid

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Vacancy1.14

“He already has one.”

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

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

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

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

“And who has authority over this pack?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re asking me?”

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

“Uh, I’m a lorelei,” she lore-lied.

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

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

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

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

“But that can’t–”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup.”

“Can you, like, even sing?”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lupo agon.”

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

 

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Vacancy – 1.12 – A Different Path

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v 1.12 photo

“The bank,” Conrad pointed to the most average-looking building on Centaurea Street in Bexley. Squat and with a white brick facade, it stood atop a foundation taller than those around it, four pillars at the top of the marble stairs leading to its entrance. It felt like any bank from her own world, but it leaned slightly to the left.

The line inside also gave her a sense of familiarity, but one that wasn’t necessarily comforting. They took their place at its end, and Conrad turned to her, “So, tell me about your family.”

His voice had been low, but she looked around nervously anyway. The woman ahead of them had in earbuds as well as a tail, though that was inconsequential, and the fairies in front of her were bickering. At the head of the line, a father was trying to distract his three daughters with bubbles from the end of his pipe that didn’t seem to pop no matter how hard the children tried.

“My family?” she repeated.

“Well, you know about mine, the estrangement, death, boo hoo. And you’ve been subjected to Arista and Seamus. It’s only fair.”

Lorelei winced. She was trapped. “Well, uh, yeah, I’ve got my mom, and that’s about it.”

The father at the head of the line was called up to the window, and they all stepped forward.

“No siblings? Cousins?”

“Oh, three cousins, but they live a couple states away. I don’t know them very well. My mom doesn’t get along with her sister. They had a weird childhood,” she shrugged, “That’s all.”

“Oh, so how did you find out?”

She stared at him blankly. “That they don’t like each other? It’s pretty obvious when they’re in the same room together. You should have seen three Christmases ago.”

“No, no,” he shook his head, “How did you find out about you,” he grit his teeth and said under his breath, “The c word.”

“Excuse me?” she took a step back.

“Being a changeling,” he urged her on.

She deflated and laughed a little at herself as the fairies were called up to the next window, “Oh! That! Well, I uh, just, was…informed.”

“By?”

“Letter?” she asked more than told.

“Who sent that in a letter?”

The woman before them pulled out her earbuds as she made her way to the counter, and they stepped up to the front of the line as someone else joined behind them. It moved quickly, but not quick enough for Lorelei’s liking.

“Well, there was also this kinda giant, in a trenchcoat. He had a big bushy beard and, um, it was my birthday.” Conrad was watching her intently as the lies came out of her mouth. Well, they weren’t totally lies; it had happened to someone, and just because it was fiction didn’t mean it wasn’t true. “And it was when we were on vacation at a lake, and, um–”

“Next, please!”

Lorelei turned on her heel at the sharp voice and made her way to the counter with a purpose, chiefly being to put an end to that conversation, but stopped short about a foot from the window. Atop the counter sat a white rabbit up on its haunches with a miniature pair of cat-eyed glasses perched on its snout. Lorelei glanced right and left at the other windows where it appeared humans were working with customers, and she worried she’d misheard.

“Yes, next, come on up,” the rabbit waved a paw at her and thumped its back foot.

“Uh, hi,” Lorelei swallowed hard and fished around in her own pocket, “I have this.” She pulled out the paper and offered it to the creature.

The rabbit looked at it, then at her, then back at the page. With a tiny paw, she took it and carefully unfolded the note, then pushed her glasses up further over her ever-bobbing nose. “Yes,” she said quietly to herself, then with a single hop to the back edge of the counter, leaned over and revealed a red magnifying glass from a drawer. Examining the number at its top carefully, the rabbit made all sorts of chittering noises, then finally put down the glass, “Paw, please.”

She had her own arm outstretched toward the girl, and after a moment, Lorelei extended her hand up onto the counter and gently placed it over the rabbit’s soft paw. The rabbit placed the note back in Lorelei’s hand and examined it again, “Well, it seems to be in order. What would you like to do?”

After Lorelei stared at her dumbly, Conrad leaned over, “Remove the contents, please.”

“Very well.” The rabbit pressed a button on the counter beside her, “I need a  guardsman.”

A moment later, a figure came from the rooms behind where the tellers stood. Sheathed in metal from head to toe, he was like a suit of armour, but walked independently. The guardsman carried a halberd, a flag of lilac and green stripes attached, and wore a green plume that sprouted from the top of his helmet, oddly organic against the rigidity of his suit. The rabbit passed the paper to the guardsman, and he bent over fully to stare at the note, then snapped his attention back to them.

“Robin will escort you,” the rabbit hopped the the counter’s end and swung open a gate for them to pass through.

They followed the walking armour as it announced its way across the marble floors. They were taken down a corridor and ended at a vault. The guardsman picked up his halberd and flipped it horizontal, and they jumped away as it sliced through the air between them. The armour inserted the end into the vault’s lock and twisted, the door giving way.

The inside of the vault’s walls and floor were lined in a deep red velvet, and the room was flooded with light. It was dizzying to barely be able to see where floor and wall met, and they focused on the counter-height table in its center. The guardsman closed them in and secured the door. If he was mechanical, she thought, she hoped he wouldn’t run out of power inside.

There was another door, which the guardsman told them to stay back from, not with words, but with the stiff sweeping motion of his hand. Lorelei and Conrad stood at the far end of the table, and the armour made similar movements, let himself in, and a few agonizingly silent moments later, emerged with a box. He locked the door again, placed the box on the table, and marched to a corner, turning stiff as stone.

Unsure if he was truly alive, Lorelei leaned over to Conrad, “Is it…saying it’s okay to open the box?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“You think so?” she groaned, “He’s got a really sharp thing in his hands, you know.”

He could only shrug, “I’ve never done this before.”

Lorelei bit her lip and reached out for the box. It was silver and unadorned, and though she tried to remind herself of Ziah’s words it could just be an old mismatched sock she felt a jolt of excitement as she lifted the lid. The box was lined in the same deep red as the room and completely empty save for a bronze circle in its center. She picked it up, much heavier than she expected, and ran a finger over the animal etched into it, round-bodied and big-eyed, holding up what appeared to be a shield. “What is this?” she asked, turning to Conrad, “Is it a chipmunk?”

He had busied himself staring at his shoes but was quick to look when she asked. He gasped and in a swift movement almost grabbed it from her, then stopped. “May I?”

“Of course,” she placed it in his hand and he flipped it over.

On the back, a long, thin metal pin was attached. Conrad held it close to his face, “It can’t be.”

She was afraid to ask, so she only stared at him.

“A brooch,” he flipped it over again, “And this symbol, I recognize it, but I’ve only seen it one place before,” Conrad stared at the brooch another moment, then plunked it back into her hand, “In my father’s casket.”

Lorelei froze. He’d just told her about his family’s passing, but this made it seem much more real.

“No,” she tried to push it back into his hands, “You should keep this if it was your father’s.”

“No, no,” he pulled away, “My father had a ring with that same chipmunk, and I saw it buried with him. And anyway, this is yours. Ms. Pennycress gave it to you. I’m just surprised. I never saw that symbol anywhere else, but,” he stared at it a moment longer then looked away, “I’m certain that’s it.”

After a few more awkward moments of silence, Lorelei let the guardsman know they were finished. They were led out and left the bank, crossing the street to the park.

“You said your father was in a secret society?” Lorelei finally ventured when she could see the arches again.

“Well,” he laughed, “I did, didn’t I?”

“Does this have anything to do with that?” she patted her pocket where she’d placed the brooch.

He shrugged, “No idea. I never wanted to be inducted. I wanted a different path, and I guess I got that.”

When they went back through the portal to the station, Lorelei felt the shiver more intensely than she had before, then when they passed back into the woods, she felt sick to her stomach, “You weren’t kidding about the Warlock General,” she told him, though she wasn’t entirely sure she felt ill because of the arches and their mysterious transportation powers.

He took her arm gently and stopped her before they mounted his bike, “Are you all right?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” she blushed then stood up straight, reminding herself he was, after all, a doctor, “Just nauseous.”

Back at the manor, Conrad had wished her good night and headed for the basement, and Lorelei found herself alone at the front desk, night having fallen and most parties already in bed. She pulled out the brooch, still wanting to give it to Conrad, but he didn’t seem keen on having it.

An idea struck her, and she slipped into the newly organized office, immediately finding the file she needed with Ms. Pennycress’s name. Unlike the others, she did not have a telephone number or email address, only a mailing address in England. With her travels, Lorelei couldn’t know when she would again be there, but it was her only shot. On Moonlit Shores Manor stationary, she drafted up a quick letter to the woman, thanking her for the gift and inquiring more about it, being sure not to specify anything about Conrad or his family. She slid the sealed letter into the outgoing mail bin between two bills and went to the staircase. Before heading up, she turned back to the office, unsure if Samuel’s presence was there or not. “Don’t mention this to anyone,” she said under her breath for good measure and went to bed.

 

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Vacancy – 1.07 – Not Polite To Ask

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playing-cards-2205554_640

“Wake up!”

Lorelei’s eyes popped open, compelled by a voice that sounded as if it were right against her ear, and much to her horror, when she turned, she saw the voice’s owner indeed perched on the edge of her bed. But she was small, impossibly small, and she hovered there with fluttering wings and a monstrous frown.

“Listen to me, and listen very carefully.” Lorelei squinted, just making out a tiny, but blurry finger being thrust just at her nose. “For Áine knows what reason, Ziah has decided she wants to keep you around. I’ve voiced my piece on that, but it matters not. What does matter is you don’t let that saint of a woman down, do you understand me?”

Lorelei nodded, her face still plastered against the pillow. It didn’t matter that the woman, or fairie as she recalled Conrad stating existed, was about five inches tall; her word felt like law. She had a mess of copper curls voluminously surrounding her face and skin so white it glowed, even without the faint light that resonated off her wings. When she finally landed on the bedside table, Lorelei could see her wings were long and tapered, like a dragonfly’s might be, and iridescent.

To Lorelei’s growing horror, she spotted two others then, another woman who was grinning ear to ear with white-blonde hair and butterfly-shaped wings seated on the edge of a short stack of books and a man sporting smaller, pointed wings and black, stringy hair crouching beside her. They were watching their cantankerous cohort with delight.

“She’ll be up here in an hour to brief you on this meeting with Arista, and you will not take this lightly.”

Lorelei shook her head and pushed herself up onto an elbow, “No, I will not.”

“But no matter what you do, Arista is not so stupid. Ziah is tired, maybe she’s not thinking right, maybe she’s too confident in her own skills, I don’t know,” the woman grit her teeth, crossing her arms and pacing the length of the books’ spines just below the others, “But she’ll see right through you. So.” She ascended into the space just before Lorelei’s nose again, and Lorelei instinctively pulled back. The woman rolled her eyes then curled a finger to beckon her close again. Lorelei complied, wondering if maybe she’d had too much ale the night before, but knowing the truth.

The fairie rubbed minuscule hands together, pursing her lips. Then, she threw them apart and toward Lorelei’s face. Something landed just across the tops of her cheeks, and her face immediately began to tingle. She had the strong urge to sneeze, but didn’t dare blow the fairie across the room.

“That should help you blend in a little better.”

The tingling sensation disappeared, and as soon as it was gone, she felt no different.

The blonde fairie spoke up from the nightstand, “At least you won’t stink as much.”

The other two nodded in unison.

“Uh, thanks?”

“I didn’t do it for you,” the redhead sniffed, the began to flit off, “Now go get ready.”

The other two alighted and followed her up to the far corner of the room until they appeared to be just glowing orbs and disappeared through a hole in the crown molding.

Lorelei blinked around the room, ensuring she was actually alone this time. “That was weird.”

“No it wasn’t!” she heard in a tiny voice from somewhere in the ceiling, “Now, get ready!”

Lorelei popped up and went into the bathroom. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror as she went for the shower and had to stop and go back. They were light, almost invisible, but she’d seen her face thousands of times before, and this was the first time she’d noticed freckles.

Ziah collected her shortly thereafter. She was refreshed, with glowing cinnamon skin and a radiant energy. Lorelei didn’t know she could be so attracted to a woman, but tried her best to put it out of her head. It wasn’t how she looked, she told herself, despite that Ziah’s bare midriff and tight jeans were objectively captivating, it was something more. The way she smiled and the things she said, she was disarming, kind, and Lorelei loved being in her presence.

They went out through the kitchen where the chef and Hotaru were baking, the whole room smelling of sugar and mulled spices, and Hotaru pushed turnovers into their hands as they passed, staring at them expectantly. They both took bites and the young girl squinted at them nervously.

Lorelei look down at the pastry with large eyes, “You made this?”

The girl nodded, her black bob bouncing.

“Holy cow,” she took another bite, ravenously, “What’s in here, crack?”

“Sugar, butter, flour, peaches, mangoes, honey,” the girl counted off on her fingers, “Not crack–what is that?” she looked to Ziah and the woman laughed.

“That means she really, really likes it, hun.”

Hotaru skipped away, beaming.

The turnover was gone before they got out the backdoor, and Lorelei felt a very specific sadness that she couldn’t grab another. Then she snapped her head toward Ziah, “Wait, there was crack in that wasn’t there?”

Ziah shook her head, “No, of course not.”

“Well, not exactly, but you know, like, it was enchanted or something. Just like this place,” she hesitated, “Like you.”

As they walked out through a high-hedged garden, Ziah went quiet, eyes trained on her feet as they crossed out into a field and up a natural hillock. Normally troubled by silence, Lorelei was a bit relieved at it for once, afraid of what was going to come next.

At the top of the hill they stopped. On its other side lay an orchard, rows of golden-leafed trees lit up by the morning sun stretching out to the horizon. An open field lined with a low, wooden fence beside it, joining to the barn where a handful of goats were spilling out and bounding across the grass. Beyond that, the forest Lorelei had traveled the day before cast a thick, green shadow, and behind them she could feel the manor standing watch over it all.

“All of this is protected–or is supposed to be–from humans.” Ziah cocked her head, “It’s not that we all dislike your kind, it’s just safer this way. We’ve lived among you forever, but never in the numbers we have now, and we know isolation is best.”

She put her hands on her hips and flashed a brilliant smile, “Things are good for us. Most humans never even know we exist, and the ones that do rarely meet more than one of our kind. The truth of it can be a big shock. A human meets Ren, okay, they know elves exist, but not the rest of us.” She said it so casually that Lorelei wondered how frequently it happened.

“So he is an elf?”

“Well, you already figured out we’re not aliens,” she chuckled. “We’re the origin of every fairy tale and nightmare you humans have. Some call us Charmed or the Fair Folk, but there’s no one name because we were never, you know, like this before. For a long time we had nothing to do with one another, but as the world grew for humans, it shrank for us. Now we do our best to get along in the pockets of space that we have. Moonlit Shores Manor is a safe haven for our kind to come to when they want to travel.”

“So the book I signed when I got here, it did ask for species?”

“It did,” she narrowed her eyes at Lorelei, “Though you shouldn’t have been able to access the manor at all as a human. Are you sure you’re all human?”

“I don’t even know what I would be.”

“Well, everyone thinks you’re a lorelei.” She seemed to read the confusion on Lorelei’s face, “a bit like a mermaid or a siren.”

She glanced down at her legs, “Guess I made a good deal with a sea witch.”

Ziah chuckled and began leading her to a little building off the back of the manor, “That’s where the changeling part comes in. We would say that someone in your ancestry was a lorelei, and the magic just stayed dormant in your lineage until you came around. Maybe you showed some kind of power and found yourself in our world…somehow. It’s not polite to ask, so you should have some time to come up with your story.”

“So is Arista going to suspect I’m human?”

“Hopefully not. She’s not very hands on at our level, but she has to approve everything. She owns the manor with Seamus. Lucky you he loves humans, so despite that they’re married, he’s not going to give away the secret, not if it means he gets to keep you around.”

“That’s nice of him.” She suddenly thought she might have just been given a brief glimpse into the life of a cat.

They came up to the garden that surrounded the cottage, butterflies diving in and out of the flowers, blooming unseasonably bright despite the fall chill in the air. Two round windows flanked the door in stained glass roses.

“So fairies, dwarves, mermaids…what are you?”

She stiffened a moment, “It’s not polite to ask, remember?”

“But you’ve got it on your form,” Lorelei frowned at her.

“All in due time. You’ve got more important things to worry about. Like this meeting with Arista.”

With a deep breath, she tried to steel herself as they went for the door, “Can you at least tell me what she is? If she’s got like two heads or something, I don’t want to be thrown off.”

“Oh, Arista will look totally human to you. She’s almost entirely witch.”

“A witch?” Lorelei cocked her head, “Isn’t that just a human?”

“Not in our world. It’s something you’re born into. In fact, it’s one of the prevailing species around. Arista’s not totally a witch though, she’s got a little banshee in her too.”

“Banshee?” Lorelei thought hard, “So what does that make her?”

Ziah put her hand on the doorknob and turned, lowering her voice to a whisper just at Lorelei’s ear, “A bitch.”

The cottage’s interior was the very definition of charming. With slightly bowed walls that Lorelei was unsure were a design choice or just the result of settling, the room felt like a nest, the space small with the rest of the cottage continuing behind a door. The room they’d entered held a desk surrounded by bookshelves and cabinets filled with leather-bound tomes and ceramic figures. A floral-patterned chair sat behind the desk, and two overstuffed ones in pink chevron faced its front. Sepia photos in mismatched frames showed various stages of the manor from times long ago, and portraits of, Lorelei assumed, owners and guests. She recognized no one but knew they were not inconsequential.

Who Lorelei could only assume was Arista emerged from the back room. Small-framed glasses were perched on the edge of a long nose pointed down into a ledger, and her face was creased with a thin-lipped frown. She was long-limbed and moved like something much bigger than she was so that Lorelei wanted to back away. Ziah cleared her throat when the woman passed them without acknowledgement.

“Yes?” she didn’t bother looking at her employee as she went for a bookshelf.

“I’d like you to meet someone.” Ziah was immediately annoyed and didn’t bother to hide that fact in her voice.

The woman set her papers on the desk and turned, her skirts swirling around her, but her hair holding its style perfectly still. When her eyes fell on Lorelei, icy blue and piercing, she felt everything tighten, inside and out. But then her frown broke into a toothy smile, “Oh my, do forgive me,” she extended a hand to Lorelei and bent ever so slightly to her height as they shook, “I’ve only returned from a short business trip. I don’t know where my mind or manners are. How are you?”

“Well,” Lorelei managed to croak out nervously. “And you?”

“Just wonderful.”

Ziah sighed, “She’s not a guest.”

“Oh.” Arista dropped her hand and her smile. She turned away and busied herself in the papers again.

“But she is an applicant.”

“For?”

Ziah sighed again, “My assistant.”

“Your assistant?” Arista peered back over her shoulder, perching a hand on her hip, “What do you need an assistant for?”

Ziah crossed her arms and sucked her teeth, but said nothing, staring her down.

“Anyway, I thought you already had somebody? That mousy little kelpie girl. The one with all the hair.” She held her hands up on either side of her head.

“Robina left over a month ago,” she said exasperatedly, “I’d like Lore to take her place.”

Lorelei felt a happy little jolt in her heart at the nickname.

Arista laid her papers down again and sauntered up to Lorelei, “What are you?”

She glanced nervously at Ziah then back at Arista. The question was impolite, but it seemed Arista had her own rules about communication. “A lorelei.”

“Another aquatic?” she rolled her eyes in Ziah’s direction, “Really? Fine, and what’s your last name?”

Lorelei swallowed, “Fischer.”

“No, I don’t know it. You’re not from Moonlit Shores, are you?”

She shook her head.

With a sigh, she went to her desk and sat. She looked up at Lorelei, blinked, then again rolled her eyes, “Well, sit down already.”

Lorelei hopped into one of the pink chairs as the woman opened the drawer in her desk. She held a set of cards, though much larger than playing cards, and began to shuffle them. “You think you’ll be a good fit here?”

“Yes,” she tried to answer as confidently as possible.

“We’ll see about that. Here,” she handed the deck off to Lorelei, “Shuffle.”

She took the too-big cards and slowly and awkwardly attempted two different methods.

“Alright, that’s enough, enough,” waving her hand for them back, Lorelei placed them in her palm. “Tell me, what will be the outcome of Lore’s employment here,” she seemed to say to the cards. She placed the stack on the desk and pointed to them, “Cut.”

Lorelei pulled a few cards off the top and placed them beside the pile. Arista took the top card from the remnants of the deck and flipped it face up. The card showed a white orb surrounded by a purple and black background and specs of silvery glitter, the roman numeral eighteen at its bottom.

“The moon,” Ziah said over Lorelei’s shoulder, “So she’s a shining beacon in the darkness. That sounds great.”

“Or an illusion that cannot be revealed,” Arista peered over the rim of the glasses and Lorelei fought the urge to touch her newfound freckles. The woman gathered up the cards and slid them back into her desk. “On a temporary basis it is, then.”

Lorelei smiled, “Oh, thank–”

“I have many things to do, that’s quite enough,” she waved them away and stood, gathering up her papers and headed back to the bookshelf.

“Nice chat,” Ziah remarked as she opened the door and Lorelei slipped out before the woman could change her mind.

As the walked back up to the manor, Lorelei felt giddy, “Temporary basis? What does that mean?”

“She wants an easy out if she decides to get rid of you,” Ziah laughed in the back of her throat, “Go grab your stuff from upstairs, we need to move you.”

“To where?”

“Employee quarters, of course.”

 

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