Vacancy – 1.08

light-96758_640 Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

Behind the receiving desk in Moonlit Shores Manor and beneath the staircases up to guest rooms. laid a small office crammed to the ceiling with teetering boxes and aged ledgers. “This will be your first task,” Ziah told Lorelei, gesturing to messy paperwork and unmarked files as they passed, then took her through another door at its end. The hall they came out into was familiar to Lorelei–they’d taken it to the ever-changing white room before–but Ziah led her down a new corridor off of it that ended in a locked door.

Inside was a common space with a fireplace, a set of rocking chairs, a downy couch, bookshelves, and a kitchenette at its back. Grier was lounging with his feet up on the back of the couch and head hanging just above the floor when he saw them enter. He pulled out his earbuds and shot up, “No way!”

“Yes way,” Ziah pointed at him, “And if you say anything, I’ll tell Arista you were complicit in this, so good luck.”

They left the boy with his mouth agape, and traveled down a short hall at the back of the room, three doors off each side. She pointed to the rooms one by one, “That’s me, Grier, Hotaru, Chef Aoyagi, and a spare. Ren has a room above the barn and Conrad stays downstairs.” Ziah brought her to the furthest back on the left side. “And you,” she handed her a long, brass key with a purple ribbon tied to it, “I’m quite excited to see what the manor’s cooked up for you.”

Lorelei thought for a minute to ask what she meant, but decided the room itself would show her better than could be explained.

Blue, like what she’d had upstairs, but this was somehow on a different level. The space was bigger, a four-poster bed in its center piled with more blankets than any one person needed. Well, anyone who wasn’t Lorelei, she thought, smiling when she saw them. Along the back wall was a deep-ledged window topped with a silvery paisley cushion. Lorelei went to the window and pulled back gossamer curtains to reveal rain pelting the window, obscuring a grey sky.

“Window’s not real,” Ziah was looking around excitedly and began fiddling with a box atop the dresser, “We’re in the very heart of the manor, but it’s a nice touch, isn’t it?” She pulled open another door in the room to find the bathroom, a massive glass shower at its back and a wall of vibrant plants lining the inside. “Not a bath person, hu?” Ziah giggled, “Rare breed.”

Lorelei took in the natural rock basin that was the sink and silver frame that ran along the mirror, all things that seemed vaguely familiar to her, but she knew she had never actually seen before. “Are you saying the manor, just like, made this stuff?”

“Of course,” she shrugged and sat on the edge of the bed, running a hand over a grey fur.

Lorelei hung her bag in the wardrobe just outside the bathroom door.

“The only rule is, no guests beyond that door out front. This is our sanctuary.”

Ziah brought her back down to the office behind the check in counter and set her to work organizing things. She gave her free range to do with the paperwork what she wanted, as the room had “always been a mess” and “gods know where anything is now, so if you can remember any of it, we’ll be better off in the end.” She left her alone to the task and a few hours flew by until the door to the room creaked open.

Grier’s white eye fell on her as he came inside and shut the two in, alone.

“Yes?” she spun around in her chair fully and eyed him. If not for the scar and eye, he’d look like any other teenager on the brink of adulthood with unkempt hair and a frown like he might want to start a fight at any moment.

“You don’t belong here.” Apparently, he did.

“Wow,” she said mostly to herself, turning away from him and flipping through the yellowed inventory pages from two years prior, “And what makes you so sure?”

“You’re not one of us.” She could hear the incredulity in his voice. She knew he wasn’t wrong, but maybe he wasn’t right either.

“Are you going to say anything to Arista?” She tried her best to keep her voice from wobbling.

“No,” he answered quickly, “I promised Ziah. But that doesn’t mean I’m okay with it.”

“You don’t like humans,” she said softly, standing up and taking the papers to a pile she’d made on a folding chair in the corner. When she looked up at him, he rolled his eyes and nodded emphatically, and she couldn’t help but stare at his milky eye. Lorelei thought back to Ziah’s explanation of their world as a safe haven. Her own world would not have been kind to Grier, even without the whole turning-into-a-dog thing. “Well, I’m sure you have a good reason.”

Grier’s face fell, then he quickly snarled again, “Yeah, I do.”

“I respect that,” she told him, giving him a little nod, “I’ll do my best not to step on your toes.”

He was still snarling, but raised his chin up as if to see her better. He pushed the hair away from his scar, then let it fall back. “Okay. Good.” He clearly wasn’t sure what to say, and Lorelei did her best to hide an amused smile. The boy shuffled from one foot to another, “What did you say your name was?”

She opened her mouth to answer, but a crash from somewhere beyond the room made them both jump. They piled out into the entryway to see the massive chandelier that hung from the second story firmly implanted in the wooden floor below. Hazy smoke curled upward from the crater it had made, the iron ring of the chandelier tilted upward, candles scattered on the floor though they had gone out in the fall.

Thankfully no body laid beneath it, but  Lorelei scrambled around to be sure. A few guests had come from the dining room to see the commotion and were staring from the doors there. When she’d seen no one was hurt, Lorelei floated over to the French doors. “For everyone’s safety,” she bared her teeth in something reminiscent of a smile and latched them out. Then she sped to the doors that lead to the sitting area. Inside there was only one soul, an older man asleep in a rocker by the fire. She quietly shut the doors so as not to disturb him, not realizing in her panic how odd that actually was.

Grier was peering upward at the iron chains that had once held the chandelier in place. There was no sign the ceiling had given way. “This shouldn’t have happened.”

“Thank god no one was under it,” Lorelei half whispered, covering her mouth.

“This…this should not have happened.”

“Of course not,” she looked around as if she could find something to move it, but it was massive and there was no way, “How do we–what do we even do?”

“This,” Grier scowled up at her, “is your fault.”

Before she could ask how that could possibly be, Ziah came in through the front door with a young couple in tow, speaking over her shoulder, “The manor has been here for over–oh!”

They were all stopped at the sight, and Lorelei could only stare back at them in her own amazement. What could she say? It fell? Well, of course it did.

“I’m so, so sorry,” Ziah shook her head, composing herself. The couple looked aghast and were staring around her as she tried to herd them out of the entryway, “I can assure you this kind of thing is not what normally happens here.”

The woman took a breath and nodded, “Obviously,” she placed a hand on her chest, “It’s just a little shocking to see.”

“Yes,” Ziah agreed, standing inside the threshold as the couple stood on its other side, “Just a fluke.”

Then the door slammed shut, locking the couple on the outside and Ziah inside.

“What in seven hells?” Ziah grabbed at the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. She put a foot up on the frame and pulled, but nothing. Grier and Lorelei ran to her aid, all three tugging to no avail. Just when they thought they were trapped, both doors came flying open, sending the three backward onto the ground. The couple was storming away, and though there was desire to pursue in her eyes, Ziah let them go.

“Do you want me to stop them?” Lorelei offered weakly.

Ziah sighed, “No. It was all going terribly anyway. She stepped in every possible kind of manure, and he couldn’t stop staring at my boobs. This was not the right place for their wedding.” She hopped up and admired the dent in the floor, “But this is really something else. I’m impressed.”

“It’s the manor,” Grier said, standing up, “It’s rebelling.”

“Rebelling?”

Grier pointed at Lorelei then turned and stormed off through the open front doors. Lorelei felt her heart drop into her stomach. Maybe it was. Maybe it had made a mistake showing itself to her. Maybe she did not belong there at all.

“Pshh,” Ziah rolled her eyes, “No such thing.” Ziah tapped her fingers together before her face, contemplating what to do, but Lorelei could see somewhere in the back of her mind, that she was second-guessing herself, and they stood in silence a long moment.

“What in the world?” A young woman stood in the doorway, face twisted in disgust. Lorelei got to her feet and moved to stand by Ziah. Immediately, she could feel a change come from the woman.

“A little accident,” Lorelei offered as Ziah was saying nothing, but glaring coldly at the newcomer.

“Whatever,” she fluttered her lashes and waved the explanation away. Tall and thin with a fall of blonde, wavy hair, she pursed her lips, “Your dog, by the way, seems kinda pissed off.”

It took Lorelei a minute to realize she meant Grier, but when she did her insides went cold and she knew she didn’t like the woman.

“Conrad is downstairs,” Ziah said through grit teeth.

“Yeah,” she looked at her knowingly, “I figured,” then threw open the doors to the sitting room and stomped off.

“Conrad’s girlfriend,” Ziah said, turning back to assess the fallen chandelier, “We tolerate her.”

The new piece of information did nothing to help Lorelei’s affection for her, “Is she related to Arista?”

Ziah returned a throaty laugh, “Ew, of course not.” When Lorelei didn’t respond how she’d expected, Ziah nodded to herself, “Oh, that’s right, you don’t know. Arista is Conrad’s aunt.”

Lorelei tried to put the pieces together in her head, but Ziah interrupted her, “I guess there are a whole lot of things about this place you don’t know that you probably should.”

Ren appeared in the doorway then, suspicious of the whole scene, “Grier said Lorelei pulled the chandelier down. I thought he was merely being hyperbolic.” His voice didn’t convey the surprise his words did, but the creature in his pocket chirped as if to add an exclamation point.

“Well of course she didn’t pull it down,” Ziah was still assessing the damage.

“I suppose not. But he also blamed her for the gate’s latch failing this morning and the goats scattering.”

When Ziah eyed Lorelei, the girl gasped, “I didn’t, I swear!”

“No, I know,” she shook her head, “It’s just a lot of coincidences, right? Don’t worry, we’ll get the bottom of this.”

There was a clatter behind the reception desk, small in comparison to everything that had just occurred, but enough to make all three, even Ren, jump. After exchanging looks with them, Ziah went to investigate, disappearing for a second behind the counter and popping up with a plaque in her hands. It was obvious it had dislodged itself from the wall, leaving a sun-damaged spot suggesting it hadn’t moved in years. It read:

Moonlit Shores Manor
Established 1602

 

Table of Contents  |  Next Installment – Monday 1/29/18

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Vacancy – 1.07

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

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 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 and 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 a 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.”

Awkwardly, 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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Vacancy – 1.05

pexels-photo-572688Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

The afternoon sun fell in wobbly blotches across the grass, cutting between the oaks that had sprung up all over the yard decades prior. Lorelei rushed across to the barn, this time empty-handed, but happily laden with direction. She found Ren, bent at the waist and staring at a large bird perched on a rail inside the structure. The bird’s sharp eyes were locked on the man’s. Neither moved.

Lorelei took a careful step toward them, her foot falls quiet on the hay. Then there was a screech, and the odd little hatchling that she had delivered to him that morning popped its head out of Ren’s pocket. The man gently guided it back down without looking away from the massive hawk that was staring him down. Finally, Lorelei cleared her throat. Ren still did not look away, “Yes?”

“Ziah sent me.”

The bird puffed itself up, its chest dotted with brown and gold feathers expanding.

Ren mimicked the creature, standing to his full height and taking in a deep breath. “Oh?” He sounded mostly disinterested.

“Yes, she told me to come to you and get the cart so I can get the luggage.”

“Did she?” He raised a nearly white eyebrow, and the bird appeared to mimic him.

“And she had a message for you. She said she needed your help with something tonight.”

“Hm?” Ren looked at her then, and in the moment he broke their gaze, the bird took flight, nipping the point of his long, extended ear. He grunted and pulled away, and Lorelei swore the bird laughed as it swooped out though the open doors at the back of the barn.

“That’s all she said?” he asked, a hand cupped over the side of his face.

“Yeah, super vague, I know.” Lorelei shrugged and offered a laugh which Ren did not return.

“Well,” he looked away again, his interest piqued and past, “I’m a bit surprised she’d ask you, but I suppose it’s simple enough.”

He turned and went to the back of the barn, and Lorelei followed, though she was unsure if she should. From the shadows of the stalls, errant noises sounded, perhaps like horses, perhaps like something she couldn’t begin to imagine.

On the other side of the building, a wagon was parked, four-wheeled with a tented roof. It was charming, with old painted sides in red and purple flowers, faded from the elements. At its head was a makeshift bench that served as a seat, and a yoke to which Ren was fastening an animal.

Lorelei caught her breath at the sight. Not horses, but massive stags were strapped to the cart, their antlers crawling up to the sky. They were very still as Ren fastened the yoke, and she stepped toward them and reached out a hand to touch the velvety length of an antler, but then it turned a black eye on her, and she froze.

Ren barely noticed, “Here you are, then.” He motioned to the cart and took a step back.

She hesitated, “But I’ve never…driven deer before.”

He shook his head as one of the stags pawed at the dirt, “I assure you, no one else has either. They know the way.”

Lorelei hoisted herself onto the cart, and settled in, turning to Ren, “Thank you.”

He scrunched up his face as if he wanted to say something, but the creature in his pocket chirped at him, and seemed to break the thought he was having. “Don’t go wandering.”

She glanced ahead and could see a worn path leading down from the barn, through a field, and into a dense treeline. “I don’t intend to.”

The stags traveled at a quick rate, gracefully pulling the cart along the flattened path. Wind swept back the sprays of Lorelei’s hair that were uncontained in the bun atop her head as they went, the forest gently humming all around. She breathed in the piney scent and smiled up at the sun’s warmth breaking through the branches. Without human voices to speak with or tasks to complete, time lost meaning, and before she realized, the forest had become denser and darker, and the sounds changed. She spoke to the stags with a chuckle in her voice, “You do know where you’re going, right?”

They glanced back at her with a huff, but continued on. Lorelei stammered out an apology and sat back.

The darkness wasn’t wholly unnerving, the bounce of the cart lulling her into some kind of calm, but the question of what lay beyond in the shadows left her on edge. She wiggled her toes and drummed her fingers, sitting with her back pressed firmly to the seat. There weren’t birds singing out here, she noted, and the stags were slowing. Was she there, wherever there was? Ziah hadn’t told her, had she? No, she’d just sent her off, alone, into the woods.

Lorelei swallowed hard.

Then there was movement in the trees, a soft rustling that grew quickly as the something beyond the ferns came closer. Lorelei held the reins tight and, unblinking, stared at the dark foliage before them. The stags had come to a complete halt, but her heart was flying a mile a minute.

A glow, shimmering white light, parted the leaves, though how a light could become corporeal and affect the physical world, Lorelei had no idea, but that wasn’t the exact thought she was having. No, it was more of a What the hell? kind of thought. A creature emerged from behind the light with a soft, silvery glow and the very obvious shape and build of a horse, but atop its head from between its ears, a golden horn protruded.

The creature stood at the path’s edge, black eyes locked on the cart. The stags moved then, tipping their heads down, and the white animal returned the nod then continued ahead of them across the path before its glow was swallowed up completely by the dark leaves on the other side.

Lorelei sat, mouth agape, as the stags continued on. They were back to a normal pace almost immediately and she wondered if she’d hallucinated. Broken from her trance, she whipped around, but there was no trace left of the animal. “Did you two see that?” she rubbed her eyes, still searching the wood for any sign. They did not respond.

The rest of the trip was a blur for Lorelei, more dark forest, but the fear replaced by wonder, until finally the path ahead changed, leading to a cave. The mouth of it was quite wide and tall, but inside it fell into total darkness. Without hesitation, the stags led her within.

A gentle, yellow glow of something crystalline jutting out from the earthen walls lit the opening, but the way ahead betrayed nothing. With a glance back at the shrinking light of the entryway, Lorelei squeezed the yoke’s reins tight, and pulled her knees up closer to her chest. The darkness closed in around her and silence filled up the cave as even the sound of the stags’ hooves fell away. She tried to grip the reins tighter, but they seemed to just be floating in her hands. She couldn’t feel the seat beneath her, and the air had lost its chill, a breeze, everything. For a moment, Lorelei was unsure if she even existed at all.

Then there was light, dim and blue, but all around her. She glanced up to see a ceiling high above, curved walls coming down to a floor laid with large, mismatched tile. Lights hung on the walls projecting a sapphire cast over the place, and benches dotted the way. In the massive room’s center was a giant divot running across its length and through a tunnel at each end. Somehow, despite entering a cave, she’d ended up inside what she could only call a train station.

“Finally come for the luggage?”

Lorelei jumped at the creaking voice. An elderly man leaned against the wall just beside where she had entered. He wore dirtied coveralls and a deep frown, but his eyes twinkled when she met them.

“Yes.” She did her best to sound like she knew what she was doing, simple and to the point, she thought, would pull that off.

“Them dwarves is like a hurricane,” he remarked, pushing himself off the wall with great effort as the stags rounded the cart up to him, “Don’t recognize you though.”

“Oh, uh, Lorelei,” she gestured to herself, “Ziah sent me.”

“Well you don’t gotta brag,” he waved her off the cart, and she jumped down. “They brought lots, might take some time.”

Around a corner, the man pulled back a sliding door onto which “Moonlit Shores Manor: Luggage Depository” was carved. Inside, a mountain of bags, boxes, and suitcases was piled taller than Lorelei herself, the uppermost pieces teetering dangerously. There were many, but they were at least small.

Her eyes big, then determined, Lorelei reached for a bag at waist height that didn’t appear to be too load bearing, and slid it from the pile, knowing she had to start somewhere. It came out with ease, but the moment it did not have others supporting it, its full weight became realized, and Lorelei crashed to the ground under it with a yelp. What were these dwarves traveling with? Rocks?

The old man laughed deeply from his belly, “Nope, you’re not going to be able to move these, I reckon.”

She grimaced, but held back the desire to ask how he planned to move them if she couldn’t. Not responding also likely had something to do with the weight that was crushing her chest.

Her answer came then in the form of the walls shaking. An earthquake was coming upon them suddenly and without mercy, but only the wall closest to them seemed to be suffering any damage. Bricks broke away from the wall, crumbling into a fine dust onto the tile, but leaving behind two clearly defined forms. Man-shaped stone creatures stepped out onto the tile with slow, meticulous steps, leaving giant-shaped holes in the wall. The stags were unphased, but Lorelei squeaked up at the newly animated beings without words. One came to her and lifted the bag from atop her with bulky, brick fingers and gently placed it in the cart.

“Might be a bit,” the old man laughed and settled down on a bench nearby. Lorelei nodded and picked herself up; she could see they moved the luggage with no effort, but they were incredibly slow. Without eyes, she didn’t know how they saw, and without ears, she didn’t know how they were called, and without organic material, she didn’t know how they were alive, but at this point she’d given up trying to reason anything. She’d see a unicorn for crying out loud, so she just turned away to admire the building.

The terminal was otherwise empty, and she walked its length. She could see from where she’d come there was an archway that appeared to lead into a black tunnel, but she knew, if anything would make any kind of sense, it would spit her back out into the forest. Above it hung a sign that read simply “Moonlit Shores.” Two other archways were in the station, one reading “Hagan’s Academy” and the other “Bexley.” She stood in front of the center archway and stared up at it. If she traveled down it, where would it lead? Presumably to Hagan’s Academy, as the sign read, but it appeared to go in the same direction as the Moonlit Shores archway. How did it work? Farther down the archway she thought she saw movement, a light perhaps, or a shadow, and she took a step toward it.

The terminal exploded into life. Bodies were suddenly coming out of the archway and knocking into her, pushing her toward the platform. A rush of sound hit her, many voices all at once, talking and shouting, and she felt herself be turned so that she was staring at the large opening in the middle of the space. Then a gust of wind flew by, pulling at every part of her. If she had been alone, she thought she would have been sucked right down along the path, but instead, the great tug finally released her and instead of the hole in the ground, a bullet-shaped train sat before her.

The doors opened and more bodies piled out of it, tall, short, wide, thin, and seamlessly traded places with those that had been standing on the platform. Lorelei was jostled about, the only real wrench in the otherwise smooth moving machine that was the platform’s transition, and she was eventually and unceremoniously shoved to the back with more than a few sneers. In an instant, the bodies loaded themselves up, and the train’s doors closed. There was another flash of wind and the train disappeared.

Lorelei spun around to see those that had disembarked filing through the three archways, barely stopping to admire the station. Just as quickly as they came, they were all gone, leaving her alone again with the stone creatures and the old man and the cart pulled by two stags of which no one had even stopped to take a picture.

Lorelei found herself staring up at the Hagan’s Academy archway again. Many had gone through, both in and out, but she was as alone now as she’d been moments prior. She took a step into the archway and the darkness. Her footsteps sounded hollow and echoed down the tunnel. She took another step in, Ren’s warning forgotten. The light from the station dimmed behind her and she took another step and then was met with a moving wall.

From her spot on the floor, Lorelei looked up to see two wide eyes peeking over an open book he’d obviously just been reading. While walking. The jerk.

“Maybe I should just stay down here. I think gravity wants me on the ground,” she mumbled to herself, sitting up.

“So sorry,” his voice was low but panicked as he dropped the book at her side. She cocked her head to read the title, Theoretical Necromantic Pharmacology, then took a steady breath, bracing herself to look up at whatever odd creature might be staring down at her.

Lorelei was somewhat startled to see there was nothing outwardly odd looking about the man. In fact, he was so normal looking, she cringed at herself for thinking otherwise.

He pulled back, biting a lip, brows furrowed over green eyes. A few days scruff covered his jaw and his hair was pulled back in a short, messy ponytail, and he wore a look that suggested he was genuinely sorry.

Lorelei grabbed the book and hopped up. He was significantly taller than her, but not so tall as Ren, not that anyone would be. “No harm done,” she handed off the book to him, “Heavy.”

Taking the tome, then locking eyes with her, he shortened the distance between them in an instant, and Lorelei felt herself frozen under his gaze. Her heartbeat thumped in her ears and she feared he could hear it too. Looking on him for longer, she studied his jaw, his eyes, the way his hair fell, and concluded, as most would, that he was particularly handsome, if in a sort of off-putting way, and simultaneously realized that without showering that morning, cleaning up goop all day, and running everywhere, she must look absolutely disgusting. Color rose in her cheeks, and the man took in a sharp breath, shaking his head, “I’m sorry, what?”

“Uh,” she stammered, finally letting go of the book, “The book. It’s heavy.” What a stupid thing to say, she thought, only the kind of thing people who don’t read say.

He raised a thick brow, “Oh, right, well turns out there’s lots to know about keeping the dead alive…theoretically.” He chuckled to himself and she did as well, hoping that had been a joke, but feeling in the pit of her gut it wasn’t, then he gestured over his shoulder, “Were you headed to class?”

“No,” she answered quickly, remembering Ren’s warning not to wander. This is what happens, she chastised herself silently, you run into a hot guy and he thinks you’re in high school. She scowled, “I’m twenty three.”

“Are you,” he paused and looked her up and down, “lost?”

Lorelei felt she should be offended, but admitted to herself she probably did look that way. Still, she couldn’t help but return the up and down he’d given her. The man carried a bag over one shoulder and wore a long, brown coat with many pockets. Plenty of places to keep that book. She huffed, “No.”

“Well, I’d offer you a tour of the place as apology for the, uh, knock down, but my ride’s here.” He gestured to the cart Lorelei had ridden in on.

“Your ride?”

He nodded, looking around the empty station, “Though I don’t see Grier anywhere–”

“That’s my ride.”

 

Table of Contents  |  Next Installment

Reminder: Vacancy is coming back on January 1st!

This may only be exciting for me, but I’m very proud to announce that my serial fiction is coming back starting Monday, January 1, 2018!

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Vacancy is a supernatural, fantasy fiction serial I began posting to the blog way back in 2016, then used as my project for NaNoWriMo 2017 and am planning to begin posting again every Monday starting January 1st.

The story follows Lorelei Fischer as she happens upon a mysterious inn, Moonlit Shores Manor, while escaping a life she wishes to leave behind. Can she secure a job at the bizarre bed and breakfast amidst its cooky inhabitants and, if so, will she even want to stay?

If you’d like to catch up or begin reading, there are currently four posts:

Vacancy – 1.01
Vacancy – 1.02
Vacancy – 1.03
Vacancy – 1.04

And many more to come, weekly, on the blog!

NaNoWriMo

You’ve probably heard of it, but in case not, November is National Novel Writing Month. The basic idea is to write a novel, or 50,000 words, in 30 days. It averages out to 1667 words a day which is very doable. In fact, it seems almost too easy. And that’s how it gets you.

I have very mixed feelings about the concept, for myself specifically, and a bit on the whole. Sometimes I think it turns writing into almost joke. Is the craft for everyone? Well, yes, of course. Should it be accessible and practiced by all? Definitely! But writing quality, heartfelt work takes much more than 30 days and an ironwill. The site says as much, admitting the month of November is actually a word vomit, which I appreciate, but I do wonder how many people utilize the month to spew and then just wrap that up and call it a novel and throw it on Amazon. When junk is touted as a NaNoWriMo Novel™, I think it gives the whole practice a bad name.

On the other hand, fuck what anyone else thinks–this is an awesome opportunity to join a community and get some shit done!

I’m also probably a super salty lady when it comes to NaNo because I’ve been doing it on and off for 8 grueling years and have not won once. SAD. But I intend to do better this year, and by better I also mean different. Instead of a novel, I’ll be continuing Vacancy.

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Hell yeah I cropped this image to look like a book cover. Go me.

The serial has a special place in my heart because it’s an idea that had been rolling around in my head for a very long time in a couple different iterations. As I said in my reintroductory post, I just took on too much with it. The anxiety of getting something completed, of not really editing, of jumping in with little direction, it was all too much. But if I can shit out 50,000 words, I’ll set myself up with roughly 20 posts which I can edit prior to posting, of course, and posting weekly starting in January will bring me almost halfway through the year, so I’ll really have some content by the end of this thing provided I can stick to it.

But can I stick to it??? Yeah, that’s what this is for. Alongside getting a good friend to flounder with me in the writing process and utilizing Husband’s creative capacity to its max (it was his idea to use Vacancy as the piece I should work on which was genius), this is my callout post. This is to keep me to my word. Whether you’ve read any of Vacancy or not, or if you ever plan to, you can be my buddy on NaNo and we can write together! Golly gee, won’t that be fun?

If anything, I’ve proven to myself I can write enough wordage to get the numbers through these blogs the last few weeks, so I know it can be done, but will it be done? Only time will tell. Here’s to avoiding failure! 50k here I come.

Vacancy – 1.04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She grimaced, “You won’t like it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorelei’s jaw dropped, “How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t say anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, here,” Ziah offered it to her.

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Table of Contents  |  Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, that’s the idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure about that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s more like it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be too surprised, now.”

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

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

 

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