Night Librarian – Flash Fiction

pexels-photo-590493Gabrielle sprinted past the thrillers, her breath catching in her throat. With each row of stacks she passed, she felt her heartbeat quicken, expecting to find the flames at any moment swallowing up bookcase after bookcase, barreling toward her with the unstoppable fury that only the kindling of thousands of old, dry pages can provide, but they never revealed themselves. She skidded to a stop at the end of the room in the midst of the mysteries. Where was the smoke coming from? It was so thick, so pungent, so…everywhere, and yet–

She turned on her heel and flew down a row to the dark corner that was philosophy. The books were untouched, and she let out a short breath: she didn’t want to find the fire as much as she did. Chewing on a lip, she looked up. Why had they left her alone? It was only her first shift on the job, and they hadn’t even shown her where the extinguisher was!

Gabrielle clanged her way up the metal spiral staircase, and in a dizzying blur, she tripped out onto the landing. The smoke splayed out before her in all it’s cloying, ensnaring glory, curling up over the tops of the stacks below and slowly descending on the ancient tomes. The catwalk that ran the outer perimeter of the library was already so thick with smoke she could not see its far side.

Racing past the biographies, she cursed her predicament: she only wanted to be lazy, to sit back and scroll through endless nothingness on her phone with her feet thrown up on the desk, the doors locked until sunup and get paid for it. Was that so much to ask? They put the ad in, after all. It wasn’t her fault the position seemed absolutely pointless!

The cloud was thick and she couldn’t see where she was going until she ran face-first into shelving on the far wall, knocking a book free. She picked it up, glancing at the title, A Concise Introduction to Logic, and started waving it in front of her face. “Shit, should I have called 911?”

It was then she realized the smoke was everywhere but she wasn’t coughing or even winded. She took in a deep breath, the musty smell of old pages and varnished wood, but no smoldering, not even any heat. And the alarms–if there were any–had yet to sound.

Gabrielle turned, gripping the banister and looking out over the whole of the place, the criss-crossing shelves, the long oak study tables, the chair still spinning in the flurry that she left it moments earlier behind the desk, and of course the originless smoke. It swirled before her and she reached out a finger toward it. As if it were alive, it shot away from her hand, and she gasped, jumping back. The smoke came together then, in front of her, away from the books, moving on its own above the cases. Silently she watched it twist and contort until it became recognizable, letters, forming two words in the sky:

GOT YA

Then as fast as it had appeared, it cleared in a single poof. Gabrielle shuffled back into the shelves and slid down onto the ground, taking in big gulps of air. In her slide she’d knocked a book free and it had landed at her side, a dragon on the cover.

This is why they need a night librarian.”

Advertisements

Vacancy – 1.14

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

Vacancy1.14

“He already has one.”

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

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

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

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

“And who has authority over this pack?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re asking me?”

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

“Uh, I’m a lorelei,” she lore-lied.

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

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

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

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

“But that can’t–”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup.”

“Can you, like, even sing?”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lupo agon.”

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

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.13

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

vacancy1.13

Lorelei immediately didn’t like the look of them. When they let the double doors slam behind them, the largest of the three strut up the front desk, a tattoo on his neck and eyes that wandered everywhere but to her face.

“Hello, sweetheart.” With that, she knew the next twenty four hours would have been a challenge had Ziah been there, but without her it was bound to be exponentially worse. “Nice place ya got here.” He placed his elbows on the desk, bringing his face far too close to her own.

Lorelei smiled as broadly as she could and stepped back, “What can I do for you today, sir?”

“Oh, lots,” he winked at her, and she managed to keep from hacking on him. A set of scars ran along his temple and up onto his head where they prevented hair from growing in two long lines, parting the stringy mane he had bound at the nape of his neck. Seeing the markings on his neck more clearly, Lorelei could just make out the word “Feral” in an overly styled font scrawled above an animalistic skull. The other man who had come in with him, tall but rail thin and wearing an open vest with nothing underneath, was poking his shaved head through to the dining room, and their third companion, a woman wearing leather and leopard print, leaned against the front door’s frame, her gum chewing audible from across the room. “We’re looking for someone and hear tell that he’s on the, uh, prem-i-ses.” He smirked and drew the word out as if impressed with himself for using it.

“Oh?” Lorelei’s smile faltered, “Well, I can’t give you any information on our guests, but if they–”

“Not a guest. A kid. Dark hair, about yea tall. Hard to miss him what with the big ole scar over his eye,” the man pointed to his own then winked at her again, “Gave him that myself.”

Struck deep in her gut with worry, Lorelei flicked her eyes to the front door, hoping Grier would not come through, though he was due back any moment. The man glanced over his shoulder, and she grimaced at her own tell. Finally she frowned, “I’m not aware of anyone by that description, and I’m disinclined to give you information about the rest of us here at Moonlit Shores Manor.” She stared stony-faced at the man, daring him to say anything else.

“Good morning to you!” Seamus’s cheery voice broke into the room as he strode in from the sitting room. Despite his lime green suspenders, layered over a sky blue dress shirt and pin-covered bowler, the sight of him didn’t break the stare between Lorelei and the stranger. He paused a moment, then sidled up next to Lorelei at the counter. “Good sir!” he extended a hand, “Welcome to Moonlit Shores Manor! Are you looking to book a few rooms? Or perhaps just one? No judgement here!”

The man gave Seamus’s hand and half-hearted glance, then smirked at Lorelei, “Not today, but maybe we’ll be back.”

He slinked out of the manor, the woman following, and the tall man bringing up the rear, though he reached out just as the door closed and grabbed the coat rack so that it would crash to the ground in their wake. Staring after them, Seamus rubbed a hand through his fiery beard, “Things seemed a bit tense there, lass.”

“No, no,” she told him, hopping from behind the counter and fixing the rack, “They were just, uh, trying to sell us something.”

“A bit rough for salesmen,” Seamus glanced back at the door then shrugged, “But we’ve not got time for that, do we? The missus and I are off for a short holiday.”

“You are?” Ziah hadn’t mentioned this.

“She’s got some business in Dublin, of all places, and I never miss a chance to visit home,” he laid a finger alongside his own nose. “You’ll be fine of course, if Ziah’s leaving you on your own no reason for us to think otherwise!”

She watched after him as he strode out of the room. Of course they were leaving. Of course. She turned back to the closed entrance and glanced out the tall window lining the side of the door. They were nowhere in sight, and she willed it to stay that way.

“Hey.”

Lorelei spun around, her heart leaping into her throat as Grier emerged from the office behind the counter. “You scared me!” she scolded him, slapping her hand on her chest, “Were you in there the whole time?”

“Yeah,” he tiptoed out from behind the counter and up to the window on the door’s opposite side. When he was satisfied they were no longer around, he turned to her, “You didn’t say anything about me to them.”

She nodded, “Duh.” Grier had been less antagonistic, but still standoffish since the seance. He liked to pretend he didn’t hear her when she asked him questions, at least not the first time. 

“Or to Seamus.”

“It’s not really his business, I guess,” she shrugged. It had seemed the right thing to do at the time, though now she was having second thoughts.

Grier snorted and crossed his arms, “Thanks.”

She eyed him a minute then went back to the counter, “Did you really think I would just, like, give you up? Like three scary-looking, super rude people come in looking for you, and I’d just throw you to the wolves?”

Grier pouted, “I don’t know, I mean, maybe? You’ll probably get another chance, though: they’ll be back,” he glanced out the window again, “Tonight.”

“Tonight?” Lorelei dropped her head into her hands and her elbows onto the counter, “They can’t just like be chill til Ziah comes back?”

Grier paced from the dining room entrance to the sitting room and back again. She watched him run his hands through his curly mop, his eyes trailing the floor. Then he stopped. “Lorelei,” he addressed her using her name for the first time, “I think I’m in trouble.”

***

“Werewolves?” Lorelei was trying to keep pace with Grier as he bound through the woods, suddenly lithe and fast. “I thought you were just like a shapeshifter or a furry or something.”

He paused a moment to glare at her, then continued on, “I’m not one fully, not yet, but they are.”

“Well, if they’re out here in the woods wouldn’t we be safer back in the manor?”

Grier had gone back to his duties after they chatted briefly about “some bad guys” who were out to get him, but when Lorelei saw him trying to slink away after lunch into the wooded area behind the manor but far from the path leading to the station, she knew she had to follow. That’s when he’d dropped the “w” word.

You certainly would be,” he snapped back.

“So what do they really want with you then?”

Grier hopped up onto a fallen log and paused, sniffing at the air, “They want to initiate me into their pack. If I’m in the pack before my first full transformation, I’ll be bound to them for the rest of my life, though no telling how long that will be with what they get up to.”

“I thought they were here to hurt you,” she tried to climb up behind him, but he was over on the other side of the log before she could get footing, “They just want you to join their club?”

“Not a club!” She saw him cut the air with his hand as she scrambled over the tree. “More like a gang.”

With the forest floor leveling out, she was able to catch up to him, “And you don’t want to join?”

“You see this?” he rounded on her, suddenly face to face. Grier was pointing at his white eye, the scarred skin cutting down his forehead and cheek a shining silver. “Axel did this to me when I was nine. So no, I don’t want to be part of a club that does this to anyone, especially not little kids.”

He turned and raced off again through the woods, and she tried to follow, “Grier, wait!” His figure jumped over another log and around a cluster of trees, and when she got there, she lost sight of him. She called out his name again, but there was no answer.

It was midday, but the forest was dark. She turned quickly, but everything looked the same in green and black shadows. The path she’d seen earlier was no longer underfoot, and when she stopped to listen for the sound of his traipsing through the fallen leaves, she heard nothing, not even the sounds of birds. “You little shit,” she grit her teeth and turned again.

“Sweetheart!” Axel loomed over her, and her heart dropped into her gut. His teeth were shining in a half smile, heavy brows coming down over dark eyes.

“Oh,” she smiled sweetly, mimicking what she had offered him insincerely before, “Hello there.”

“Fancy seeing you out here,” he took a step toward her and she matched him, stepping back.

“Ah, yeah, well, what’s…up?”

He narrowed his eyes, studying her “Not much, and you?”

“Just going for a walk out in the woods…all alone,” Lorelei clasped her hands behind her back and took another step away from him. Good, she thought, he was at least a bit dumb. “Nice day, hu?”

“Quite. I, uh,” Axel cleared his throat, “I’m still looking for our little friend.”

“Not having any luck?” she cocked her head, “Well, that’s too bad. I’ll keep an eye out!” Lorelei turned to flee, but was met with the bare chest and visible ribs of the skinny, tall man from the lobby. He pushed her backward and she tripped, but caught herself before she fell to the ground. She was getting better at that. “Listen, you’re trespassing, all right?” she said, unsure if it was true and looking from one to the other as they began to close in on her, “It’ll be easier for all of us if you guys just head home.” The waver in her voice was thoroughly unconvincing.

“You could just give him up, you know,” Axel growled, “We’d consider sparing you if you did.”

The woman emerged from the trees, more threatening up close with dark lips highlighting how much she was enjoying this. Lorelei held her ground, balling her fists, “I already told you everything.” Somewhere out in the woods she heard a twig snap and wondered if there were more of them and if they would take chase if she ran. She was no good to them if no one knew she was missing, but they were probably too dumb to realize that.

“Here I am.” Grier’s voice came from above. He was crouching on a tree limb, glowering down at them.

“Oh, wow,” Lorelei glared at him, “Look at that, a boy I’ve never once seen before with my own eyes.”

He dropped down, a shocking distance, but landed with ease to stand opposite the group. “What do you want, Axel?”

“It’s time,” the man said to him, “You’ll be changing soon. Can’t you hear the call? Feel the moon?”

“You don’t know that,” his fists were balled at his sides, “It might never happen.”

“It will happen, Grier, and you’ll need us when it does.” The man’s lip turned up. The words were almost kind, but Lorelei could feel a venom to them. “When you change, you’ll need a family.”

Grier was quiet, his shoulders slumping in slightly. He scrunched his face up, his eyes glossing over, and Lorelei got nervous. Nervous enough to do something stupid.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.12

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

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.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.11

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


V 1.11
The sound of the motorcycle impeded any conversation, but it was just as well since Lorelei would have had no idea what to say with her arms wrapped around Conrad’s waist as they bumped along the path through the forest anyway. After her first successful week at the manor, threat of death from above resolved, the office neatly sorted, and the dwarves checking out that morning, Lorelei thought to do a load of her own laundry when she found the slip of paper she’d been given by the old woman on her first day crumpled in her pocket. When she inquired what to do with it, Ziah told her it would be good at the bank in Bexley for the contents of a box.

“Whatever correlates to the number on there,” she’d pointed to a long sequence of numbers, letters, and symbols at the top of the note, “Ms. Pennycress is a bit…odd. She may have left tons of gold in there, or an old, mismatched sock.”

Conrad had been passing by when Lorelei told Ziah she’d never been to Bexley before, though she remembered the name from the station in the woods. He offered to take her as he would be headed there that evening to “stock up” on essentials for the apothecary.
And here she was, riding “rear admiral” as he’d called it when he told her to hop on. Only once did she squeeze him what she thought was too tightly when they hit a bump, still she was glad when they dismounted, unsure she could possibly sweat anymore.

She shivered when they entered through the cave opening to and came out in the quiet station, that same dizzying sense of nothingness all around her. The archway to Bexley stood ominously above them, and Ziah’s hesitancy to see Lorelei go ate away at her. She glanced at Conrad, calm and confident as he adjusted the bag strapped to his back.

“Ready?” With a nod, they went though the archway, the same weightless feeling and shiver.

Before she saw anything, she heard it. There was chatter, the twittering of birds, laughter, and then light. They stepped out onto grass atop a hill in the center of a park. With the archway behind them, Moonlit Station carved into the bricks at its top, Lorelei could see out across the grassy field and beyond to a wrought iron fence and a densely packed street. When she spun to take it all in, she saw the arch again, but despite having come through from the station, she could now see through it to the rest of the park and a handful of other arches set atop the hill. Curious, she walked around to the arch’s other side. At the top of this side, it read “Blind Cape.”

With a shrug, she stepped through it to meet up with Conrad who still stood on its other side, but instead when her foot hit the ground, the friendly sounds of the park were swallowed into darkness, and she was she standing on a beach in the middle of the night, her stomach feeling as if it had just fallen out of her. An eerie baying sounded somewhere in the distance, and scrub bushes across the dunes rattled ominously as a violent wind whipped down the coast. She stumbled backward and the sunlight blinded her as she nearly tumbled down the hill.

A hand was around her arm, lifting her to her feet. “Yeah, so the Warlock General suggests not passing through an interdimensional portal more than seven and a half times a day, which is admittedly an inconvenient number, but we should try sticking to that.” Lorelei tried to return Conrad’s grin, but she was shaken and her heart was beating a bit too quickly for her liking. Also not to her liking was how it slowed when he released her.

The park looked remarkably ordinary at first glance. Well manicured grass in triangular patches was broken up by wide sidewalks, skinny trees ran along the sidewalks, mulched flower beds at their roots, and larger oaks offered shade in the grass fields. People walked by arm-in-arm with one another or with their leashed dogs. Only on closer examination, they weren’t all dogs, nor were they all strictly what Lorelei would call people. She wanted so badly to spin around and take it all in, but that had proven disastrous a moment prior, and gawking could give her away. She touched her face as if she could feel for the freckles the fairies had given her, trusting they were still there.
Conrad began sure footedly down a path, and she hurried alongside him, wrapping her arms around herself and staring unblinking in every direction. A couple walked hand in hand toward them, their skins in blotchy shades of red and purple, speaking to one another in a language Lorelei couldn’t even begin to place. When they passed, Lorelei glanced back to see their tails were also entwined.

“The bank is quite close, but since we don’t know what we’re picking up, we may be better off heading to the apothecary first,” he told her, and she agreed because really what else could she say, but she hardly hear him anyway, distracted by a blonde woman sitting on a bench and tossing handfuls of seed toward a bush where a gaggle of geckos, neon pink with bulbous eyes, darted out onto the sidewalk, slingshotting their tongues and collecting her offering before skittering away.

“I need to go to two places,” he hesitated, “and it might not all be as nice as this, I’ve got to warn you.”

As the reached the purple-rose covered trellis that lead them out of the park, a group of teenagers came barreling toward them on skateboards. Lorelei and Conrad flattened themselves against opposite sides of the trellis to make way.

“All right?” Conrad asked, chuckling at the look that must have been on her face.

“Those skateboards didn’t have wheels,” she was pointing after them as they zipped through the park.

“Nope.”

“Those were tiny golden wings?”

“Yup.”

“That’s great!”

Outside the park lay a real city. The streets were narrow and filled with people and people-like beings, though there were bus stops and a double decker meandered its way through the crowd. Buildings lined the roads fitting tightly together with the occasional dark and ominous alley, but their fronts were often colorful with signage that didn’t specify exactly what the buildings contained.

Questions exploded inside her head, every turn replacing an existing one with something new, chiefly among them Where are we? as it had become apparent to her through the weather and daylight they were no longer in the same state, or perhaps even country, as Moonlit Shores Manor–wherever that was–but she resisted asking, feeling as though Bexley might not be anywhere at all. Finally, she pointed to a sign hanging above a door that held no legible letters to her but a triangle, a star, and what looked like a hieroglyph of a cat. “What does that say?”

Conrad stopped, peering up at it, “I have no idea. Wanna go in?”
In the window, an aquarium tank full of eels packed tightly together, slithered all over one another. “No, not really.”

“Maybe next time then,” he continued on, bringing them down a number of streets identified by what what seemed like the scientific names of plants.

“So you come here often?” she heard herself asking like an idiot.

“At least once a month for supplies. Sometimes we come out on the weekends for dinner or to a show.” That we included the haughty woman she’d met at the manor, and she frowned a little. “Sometimes I just like to come and walk around, not that I have that much free time. Ah, here we are,” he guided her to a storefront with a spiral carved into a wooden plank jutting out from the door. They entered with the tingle of chimes into a tightly packed shop. The smell was both pleasant and not, clean and healthy, but stinging to her nose, but Lorelei immediately felt relaxed and the urge to buy something hit her all at once. Almost intuitively, the two glanced at one another, and Conrad raised an eyebrow at her, “Get used to that, most of them do it.”

The woman behind the counter at the end of the shop waved to them, and Conrad addressed her by name, letting her know he’d come for his pick up. She told him it was almost ready and encouraged him to have a look around while she double checked it.
A wall ran the length of the shop, filled with clear bulk bins. Their contents varied in color, mostly greens and browns, but a splash of magenta or teal stood out boldly from the rest. The labels were hand-written, and she read a few quietly to herself, Valerian Root, Mugwort, Knight’s Milfoil, noting a few that were marked only with symbols.
Conrad appeared over her shoulder, pointing at one of the bins containing a bright yellow, sand-like substance with a marker that only displayed a square with a line through the middle, “To mend a split. We use it to help broken things like bones, sleeping cycles, hearts.”

Lorelei giggled, but when he didn’t respond in kind she peered up at him; he was already pointing out the next container. “That we call lushberry,” the label was of a few stars in a circle, “Causes instant drunkenness if consumed. And this one is for curing that drunkenness.” That label had a sun on it.

“You sure know your stuff,” she commented, still worried he was joking with her.

“School wasn’t a waste afterall,” he sighed, “Tell my father that.”

Lorelei scoffed, “Your dad’s upset that you became a doctor?”

“Well, he’s dead, so he’s not anything anymore,” he laughed awkwardly, “but it wasn’t his first choice for me. Thankfully, he had my brother to follow in his footsteps already.”

“You have a brother?” she tried to sound hopeful.

“Had,” he scratched the back of his head, “Turns out secret societies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Or maybe they are.”

Lorelei contemplated telling him she was sorry for his loss, but she couldn’t get the words to come. Instead, she stupidly stuttered, “Dude, that sucks.”

To her surprise he burst out laughing. “Yeah it kinda does,” he cocked his head and looked at her earnestly, “but it also kinda doesn’t? I miss them sometimes, but they could be assholes. Now my mom, she was–”

“Almost finished!” the shopkeeper’s voice rang out from the back, breaking Conrad of his thought.

“Why am I telling you this?” he screwed up his face, running a hand over his stubble,

“This must be so uncomfortable for you! Come look over here,” with a hand on her back he guided her to another shelf and started telling her excitedly about boils.

Lorelei took a small jar off the shelf as he spoke and inspected it. Through the clear lid, she could see minute, dried purple flowers and she untwisted the top of the jar to sniff. Suddenly she could feel every nerve in her body come to attention, and her eyes went wide as she felt a way she’d never felt in public before.

Conrad’s face changed, and he slowly took the bottle from her. As his hand slid over hers, a chill ran up her arm and into her chest, and yet her face flushed.

“Oh, that was–,” he quickly screwed back on the lid, and took a step back, “How do you feel?”

Her mouth went dry and she licked her lips, the sensation sending another shock through her, more faint, but troubling. She managed a whisper, “I don’t want to say.”

“Well, since you’re not vomiting, looks like you’re part of the 14.7 percent. Congratulations.” He winked, and she felt her face go deep scarlet, relief only coming when the shopkeeper called that she was finished.

When he paid, Lorelei had no idea how they would bring the load back, let alone traverse the city with it, but he put his small satchel on the counter and began filling it with the loot, and the bag never changed shape. When the last piece was slipped in, he lifted it effortlessly and slung it over his shoulder.

“That shouldn’t have surprised me,” Lorelei shook her head, and he chuckled.

Outside, they passed by a sweet shop that made Lorelei’s literally drool (“They do that too,” he told her), and a pet store with big-toothed puppies in the front window (“Completely herbivorous, I know, unbelieveable!”) “The next place we’re headed,” he gestured to the street they were on, “Isn’t exactly like this.”

“This,” she gestured up the street as well, “Isn’t exactly identifiable to me anyway, so…”

“Just stay close and try not to look so–” he looked her over, “so nice.”

She furrowed her brow and frowned.

“Better,” he squinted, “but I guess that’s the best you can probably do.”

“Thanks?”

They took another turn down a winding road, and she began to notice how the streets were more narrow, the building taller, leaning out over them and blotting out the sunlight. Fewer folks were about, but those that were skulked. Lorelei tried to skulk too, but had the instinctive feeling she looked more like she was scurrying.

Finally, they turned into a shop off a narrow alley that Lorelei had mistaken for a private residence from the lack of signage on the door. There was no bell when they entered, but a clerk was upon them almost immediately. “Number 52,” Conrad said to the man who disappeared without a word.

The place was dark, but strategic violet lights illuminated items. There were herbs here too, though she wasn’t close enough to read the labels, and jars filled with things she didn’t want to read the labels for. In the far corner an elderly woman sat in a rocking chair, her eyes locked on a book in her lap as her lips mouthed the words. Lorelei could just hear her whispers in the quiet of the room, punctuated by the rhythmic creak of her chair.

Lorelei took a step toward a shelf, but without a look or a word, Conrad’s hand wrapped around her upper arm and held her to the spot just up against him. When the clerk returned, they exchanged currency for a tiny vial, and only then he released her and they left. Back outside, neither said a word until they had emerged from the darkened parts of the city.

“I want to ask what that was about, but you’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“You’re better off not knowing.”

She knew he was right.

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.10

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

Vacancy 1.10 photoLorelei realized she had not yet been in the basement of Moonlit Shores Manor, and traversing that barrier down a creaking staircase at three in the morning didn’t seem like the most welcoming time to do so. Candles in their holders along the walls cast Hotaru’s and her own long, black shadows ahead of them as if they followed a set of robed figures. The darkness changed as they descended, more complete and quiet, and she could feel the ground rising up around her.

As they came to the narrow landing at the staircase’s end, a soft, violet glow met them, accompanied with a briney, wet scent like that of ocean air. Illuminated by splashes of blue, purple, and green luminescence crawling over rocks and sprouting from the midst of leafy foliage, Lorelei could see that the walls in the space they’d come into were cut from natural stone arching up above them to form a craggy ceiling. From the ceiling, stalactites hung, shimmering like icicles in the luminescence, and some even met the rocky places that grew up out of the ground, though she soon realized it was not an earthen floor, but water.

“Is the manor built over a pool?” Lorelei whispered, though her voice echoed into the cavernous chamber. Taking a step forward, she felt uneven planks below foot.

“I would call it more like a salty lake,” Hotaru told her offhandedly, “But you can swim in it if you’re brave enough.”

Lorelei knelt at the edge of the boardwalk where the water gently lapped at the planks. From the blackness below, she saw a pale orb rising up to the surface. She leaned a bit closer then, in the darkest depth that she could perceive, noted two eyes staring back at her own. She let out a squeak and jumped back, colliding with Hotaru. Water sprayed up at them, then there was a splash somewhere at the farthest end of the space, followed by deep, feminine laughter echoing off all of the walls.

“This way,” Hotaru giggled, gesturing for her to follow around the lake on the boarded path. Lorelei kept her eyes glued to the black waves, but saw no other movement. They came to an archway in the stone and found themselves traveling down a more traditional basement corridor, with block walls painted a soft grey and more sconces holding candles. Ahead, one of the many doors opened, and a tall shadow staggered into the hall. Lorelei stopped, nerves on edge, but the candles illuminated Conrad’s unshaven face. With sleep in his eyes, he yawned with a wave, “Morning, ladies.”

“Shut the door!” a familiar, annoyed voice shouted from deeper in the room.

He took his time reaching for the handle and gently pulled it to, avoiding both girls’ amused looks then joined them on their trek. Down the corridor and around the corner, they came to yet another set of stairs. Lorelei’s heart pounded a little harder as they descended, and she reached out a hand to steady herself as there was no railing. The wall was rough here and gritty as if the stairwell had been carved out of the earth. Lorelei had never been a fan of tight spaces, but the cool stone on her hands made her feel something different, and when she took a deep breath, she thought she could feel the manor breathe with her.

At the base of the stairs, they reached their destination, a room glowing orange where Ziah waited, tapping her foot. Grier was already sitting at a round table in the room’s center, leering at the door, his eyes locking onto Lorelei when she entered. Seamus and Ren conversed in a corner, the elf nodding solemnly at Seamus’s big, articulate motions with his hands. The space was warm, a few degrees beyond cozy, Lorelei reckoned, and there was a humming coming from the walls.

“That’s all of us,” Ziah turned to the only figure Lorelei didn’t recognize.

Shadowed against the furnace, a massive metal chamber encrusted in orange rust, a fire glowing from behind its mouth-like grate, a woman’s figure stood. She threw her hands into the air, spinning to face them and tilting her head to the ceiling. “I feel it!” her exclamation made each of them jump, “This place,” her accent was thick and southern, and Lorelei took a quick peek at her feet to check for cowboy boots, “it’s brimmin with life!” Point-toe, red-soled, nude pumps. Lorelei cocked her head.

“Yes,” Ziah spoke through grit teeth, “You said. Please, can we get started?”

“Started?” the woman snapped her head to stare at Ziah, “Darlin, there is no start, no beginnin, to eternity. Whether we cross the veil or not, the spirits are here.” She wore a ruby lip and cat-eyed, purple shadow, with hair, bleached blonde, surrounding her head in a perfectly round helmet. Lorelei said a silent prayer for the ozone then realized she’d done that before.

“I know her,” she whispered, sidling up to Ziah, “from TV.”

“Betsy Jo LaReaux,” the woman crossed her arms and popped out a hip, mimicking the pose Lorelei had seen in the opening montage of her show, “Clairvoyant to the Stars. You musta spent some time out there amongst my kind,” she winked at Lorelei, “The Charmed don’t like it, but simple human folk like me gotta earn a livin, and the spirits tell me everythang. Every. Thang.”

Lorelei gulped; at least the spirits hadn’t spoken of her secret yet.

“Betsy Jo can walk and work in both worlds. She’s exceedingly rare: a human with a charmed gift,” Ziah eyed Lorelei as if she were contemplating a new thought, then shook her head, “She’s the best, from what I understand, and she’s visited here before as a guest.”

“And I been itchin to come back,” she rubbed her hands together and glanced around the room, “Let’s all take a seat, shall we?”

Lorelei found herself between Hotaru and Conrad as they filled in around the table, Betsy Jo directly across from her. Their positions faintly resembled what she’d seen of seances on the couple episodes of Clairvoyant to the Stars she’d allowed to play in the background while doing other tasks, but the glitz was missing. Instead of the dark cloth draped over the table, it was bare wood, older and covered in knicks and scratches. There were no candles in varying sizes melting all over one another lining the walls, no purple and gold crystals reflecting the candle light, no massive crystal ball in the table’s center. But Betsy Jo was dramatic enough.

The woman threw her head back and her arms up, addressing the ceiling, “Spirits of Moonlit Shores Manor, hear my request. I beseech you, oh spirits, to assemble here this night, to wrap us in your protective light, and to present to us the truth we seek.”

Lorelei felt her stomach flutter. She always thought Clairvoyant to the Stars was a hoax, and yet Ziah had called her up to solve a very real problem. She glanced at the others around the table. Grier was still glaring at Lorelei from under a heavy, furrowed brow, Ziah and Hotaru beside him, both looking at Betsy Jo with a quiet suspicion. To Betsy Jo’s left sat Seamus, eyes twinkling as he apparently surveyed everyone as well, giving Lorelei a nod when their eyes met. Ren stared straight ahead at nothing in particular. Conrad, beside her, returned her look when she glanced at him, raising an eyebrow and gesturing toward the woman. I can’t believe it either, she told him, but only in her mind.

“By golly!” Betsy Jo exclaimed, slamming her hands against the table. She popped her eyes onto Ziah and huffed, “This place is fuller than a tick on a coonhound!”

“Well, many have lived–and I guess died–here over the last four hundred or so years.”

“And they come back,” she put a finger to her mouth in thought, “Even when they pass far away. This place calls to em. You’ve got to let me shoot here, for my charmed show!”

“Let’s see how this goes first, hm?”

Betsy Jo huffed, then sat back, “Alright, alright. Come on now,” she laid her palms up on the table and wiggled her fingers, “Ya’ll are gonna need to help, as I predicted.” Seamus immediately grabbed her hand, but she had to reach out and take Grier’s. When the rest did not rush to comply, she gestured with the hands she already held, nearly yanking Grier from his seat, “All ya’ll now!”

Lorelei looked to Conrad beside her hesitantly. He gave her half a grin and offered up his hand. She sat hers on top carefully then clasped down when she felt Hotaru picked up her other hand. When Ziah finally made reluctant contact with Grier, a spark flew through the group, zapping each in a wave as it traveled from Betsy Jo and back to her again. They were connected. “Now,” she gazed out over the table, “Do not let go.”

Their guide tipped her head back once more, but this time when she spoke, it was quiet, half in whispers, half inaudible. Gentle hisses filled up the room, riding on the hum of the furnace, until her one voice sounded as if it were many, layered on top of one another and coming from every corner. The others could hear it too, Lorelei confirmed, when they swiveled their heads to peer into the shadows at the edges of the room, but they followed Betsy Jo’s instruction, and she felt both Conrad and Hotaru’s hands tighten on her own.

Words began to form from the whispered sounds, each a fragment of something more, a “kitchen” or “hello” or “statue” rising up out of the sea of whispers each in its own unique voice none of which matched Betsy Jo’s, then fading back in. A chill ran up Lorelei’s spine despite the heat in the room, and a voice sounded just next to her ear, “It wasn’t me!” She jumped, but Conrad was holding fast and they did not break the circle.

As the voices became louder, there was a tinge of anger, blame perhaps, as they answered one another. Pieces of conversations floated around them as if the speakers were passing by. Lorelei thought she caught sight of a figure walking behind Grier, but when she turned to see it fully, it was not there. Another shadow flitted from the corner of her eye near Ren’s shoulder, and when she swiveled to catch it, there was again nothing, but Ren appeared paler, if possible, his eyes locked on the table, wide and searching.

The voices crescendoed suddenly, unmistakable now, loud and shouting. The bodies around the table all leaned forward, closer together, grips tightening, breaths held. Even Grier had lost the ire in his eyes and was panicked. Then Betsy Jo’s head snapped forward, her hair unmoving in its perfect halo, and her eyes fixed on a place just above Lorelei’s head, “There you are.”

The room plunged into silence in an instant, and Lorelei’s ears rung. Despite the orange glow, the room’s temperature had dropped, and if she had breathed, Lorelei thought she might see it.

“It’s okay, honey,” Betsy Jo spoke to no one, “I’ll help you. You can use me to talk to these nice people. Go on now.”

She snapped her head back, then gently dropped it forward again. Sleepy eyed but only for a moment, they popped open and she gasped, “No way!” Eagerly, she looked around the room, blinking, then down at herself, any trace of her accent gone, “This is too cool!” The look she wore disappeared, and her voice changed back to its failair southern drawl, “Don’t get comfortable, ya hear? I’m only allowin this so you can answer these nice people’s questions.” She gulped and nodded, her voice again dropping its accent and taking on a lilt, responding to herself, “Yes, yes, okay.”

As Betsy Jo looked out on them, they came to the shared conclusion she was no longer herself. Or she was a fabulous actor.

“So,” Ziah drew out the word, biting a lip, “are you our troublemaker?”

Betsy Jo shook her head, violently, eyes wide and unblinking.

“You’re not the one who made the chandelier fall or let the goats out?”

“Or unknotted all my ties?” Seamus piped up and the woman looked at him. “I, uh, have Arista pre-tie them all.” He grinned.

“Nu uh,” she shook her head again, then winced as if she’d been stabbed. Betsy Jo sighed, “Tell the truth,” in a scolding, southern drawl. “Ugh, okay, it was me!” she hung her head.

The alarm draining from her face, Ziah pursed her lips, “Well, why?”

“Cause,” Betsy Jo huffed, “I felt like it.”

The group traded looks, still holding one another’s hands though it felt normal now. Ren appeared composed again, and asked, “What is your name?”

“Samuel,” she ventured carefully.

Something stirred in Lorelei’s brain–a name, a face–but she couldn’t place it.

“And how old are you, Samuel?”

Betsy Jo’s eyes glanced around the table, and Samuel answered: “Forty nine.”

Ziah leaned forward, “How old were you when you…passed on?”

Samuel grumbled in the back of his throat, “Ten.”

“That’s a long time to be hanging around still,” Ziah offered cautiously, “Why are you still here?”

“I’m waiting for my mom and dad.”

A wave fell over the table and the cold felt different then, more empty. Ziah sat back, “Samuel, you could have hurt someone.”

“No!” he shouted using Betsy Jo’s voice, “I made sure nobody was around when I did those things! You didn’t get hurt, did you?” he looked directly at Lorelei.

She paused, then shook her head slowly.

“See, she’s fine.”

“Samuel, does Lorelei have something to do with why you’re…acting out?”

Betsy Jo’s eyes were staring daggers at her.

Grier laughed, “I knew it!”

Ziah glared at him, and he shut up immediately. She was careful how she went on, “Do you want to elaborate?”

“It’s just…that’s my fort, and she’s messing it up.”

“Your fort?”

“The room with the boxes,” he said as if they all should have known, “She moved everything.”

“The office,” Lorelei nodded at him, “I’m organizing the paperwork in there.”

“Typical,” Betsy Jo came back all at once, sitting up straight and arching a perfectly tweezed brow, “Construction and other big changes to living spaces really put a burr in their saddles, even the most casual hauntings. We can send Samuel to the other side, if you’d like. He’s not a particularly strong spirit, used up mosta his energy runnin all over hell’s half acre the last day.”

Though she clearly didn’t want the obstacle to her work, Lorelei felt a pang in her heart at that suggestion.

“That might be for the best,” Ziah offered quietly.

Suddenly panicked, Lorelei shouted, “Wait! What’s Samuel’s last name?”

Betsy Jo was quiet a minute, rolling her eyes back, “Winchester.”

She searched her mind. “Can I talk to him again? Just for a second?”

Closing her eyes, the woman sighed, then when she opened them again they were looking straight at her. There was panic in them, just like how she had felt a second earlier. “Sam, do you want to stay here?”

This time he nodded frantically.

“You know, if I finish organizing the office, there will be a bunch of space in there for you to play.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she couldn’t help but smile at the look Betsy Jo was giving her, even if it was an act, “But you can’t mess up the papers. And you definitely can’t drop heavy things from the ceiling.”

“I know.”

“Promise,” Ziah added, narrowing her brow.

“Yeah, yeah, promise!” Betsy Jo shook her head then blinked, “So what? No cleansin?” It was her again.

“I guess not,” Ziah shrugged and flashed a quick smile at Lorelei.

“Well, I ain’t givin ya a discount.”

Betsy Jo spoke to the manor’s spirits again, bestowing thanks on them and protection on the circle, and ended their communication gracefully. When finished, she released Grier and Seamus’s hands and placed her own flat on the table. She looked tired, if only for a moment, then pushed herself up to stand and began shaking hands.

Ziah touched Lorelei’s shoulder and leaned over in her ear, “Nice catch with the Winchester reservation.”

“Every year,” Lorelei sighed, “It must be sad for them.”

Betsy Jo took Ziah away then to discuss payment, and Lorelei lingered near the door while the others filed out, Grier now avoiding her gaze like the plague. Finally Betsy Jo broke off from Ziah and reached out for Lorelei’s hand. She was reticent to take it, but when she did, felt that same spark that had shot around the table.

“Oh!” Betsy Jo jerked as if she’d heard someone call her name. “Well,” she smiled, “they got a lot to say about you.”

Still trapped in her handhold, Lorelei attempted to lean back, but was only pulled in closer. “She won’t do it,” she whispered, “Trust yer gut, hun.” As if she read the look on Lorelei’s face, Betsy Jo LaReaux flashed her a dazzling red smile, “I’m bout as confused as a hen in a ping pong ball factory bout that too, but that’s what they want ya to know. Consider it a freebie.”

 

Table of Contents  |  Next Installment

An Excerpt

Since I’ll very soon be able to focus on writing and editing a trilogy of fantasy quest stories I’ve been working on over the last *muffled number* years, I thought I’d share a little excerpt from the first book. The series is as yet unnamed which is probably a mistake on my part, but it is what it is.

Jayn’s first memory was of a bucket of dirty water going clean. She held blurry glimpses of a time before, a smiling woman in violet robes, a moonlit field of white flowers, but her first real memory was of a bucket she wished she didn’t have to drag outside, dump, and refill, and then–somehow–she indeed did not.

Jayn had detested trips to the well and back, but the purified water that ran indoors was for drinking, cooking, and occasionally bathing only. Mistress insisted. Her small stature, young age, and sheer boredom made the task tripley difficult. The wispy girl found, however, by concentrating very hard, she could make use of the first bucket she carried in from the local well all day. It was something she couldn’t explain, but after watching Master do all sorts of tasks with what seemed like only his mind, she never felt the need to explain it to anybody. A lucky thing, that was.

A much older Jayn, who now found herself traveling away from the place that bucket resided with no hope of returning, knew that what she had done was manipulate aether, the invisible force within all things, and, though it was no secret that this magic existed, she had developed a different kind of need to keep her ability hidden. As she pressed herself into the cushioned seat of the carriage and peered through a slight break in the curtains, she saw that dirtied bucket of water all over—the color of the ground, the sky, the murkiness beyond the horizon–but this she had no chance of making clean.

The skyline bumped along as she traveled farther away from Mulrennan, and she could almost feel the town breaking away from her as she went, every jar in the road ripping it off a bit more. It stuck to her like sap and though it was not particularly well-loved, it was all she had known, and that, she thought, was far better than the unknown.

There had been another girl, an indentured housegirl like Jayn, who had shown to have similar abilities, and much to the dismay of her masters, the garrison had taken her. The girl had been excited to go, but to Jayn the circumstances felt ominous. While magic wasn’t a secret, it was highly guarded. The family to which Jayn was beholden was one of the few who openly practiced, but they operated their shop with an edict from the royal court that Master would serve on the village’s council, providing his services when needed. And though Jayn had seen her do little things beyond explanation, Mistress swore to the gods she had never manipulated aether, and as far as anybody else was concerned, she was common: the magic was passed down through Master to his sons. Mistress was many things, and chiefly among them smart, so Jayn mimicked that she too was common for as long as she could, and so she was doubly annoyed that her skill with aether wasn’t at all what had gotten her into her current predicament.

The carriage had taken her passed the farthest farms supplying the village, travelling down into a grey fog, distorting what lay beyond. Fog was rare in Mulrennan and considered foreboding. Though Jayn found the superstition silly as there hadn’t been anything more fearsome than the odd wolf sighted in Mulrennan in longer than anyone could remember largely thanks to the temple of Seele a few days’ ride north, she suddenly felt perhaps there was more to the tales of fog delivering demons and monsters than she had once believed. Yes, travelers came to the village and spoke of shapeshifters, lycans, and even the odd draugr, but her home had always been safe. Safe from the monsters beyond the village, at least.

But there had been an air of change in town, specifically since Baron Allaire had died and his son had taken hold of Mulrennan and the neighboring villages. He’d recently returned from the capital, Helmsrian, and had gone, what some called, “a bit off.” Jayn had heard them, the ladies gossiping, while she picked up fruit and bread at market. When she dallied with the other housegirls along the river before heading home, she heard them more crassly proclaim that the new Lord Allaire had gone absolutely mad.

He’d taken to restoring a fallen manor in the heart of the moors that had last been home to Allaires so long dead that no one living had known their children’s children. While his father frequently made visits to the other villages and lived in the largest of homes in the heart of Mulrennan, his son only came into town every moon or so, and when he left, a letter would arrive at the home of one or two of the housegirls in town requesting the permanent services of the girl. Of course, to call it a request was a stretch, but Allaire was at least generous enough to send a purse of gold in exchange.

The ladies being served lunch at the tearoom in the town square spoke in hushed whispers that the lord’s newly begotten hobby of training and marrying off the common girls to his friends from Helmsrian, which of course was what he was doing since he needed replacements so often, was almost charming if it weren’t so improper. The girls working in the seamstress shop argued that his abduction of their cohorts, never to be seen or heard from again would be suspicious if they didn’t agree that they too would abandon this life if someone swept them away to Helmsrian to be some wealthy merchant or lord’s wife. Now, as Jayn sat within the carriage she’d only previously seen amble through town with the shadowy form of someone she once knew inside, she was fairly certain everyone was wrong.