I’m Changing My Name To Hestia

A commonly held belief amongst baker/homemaker/mom-type people is this: there is nothing better than homemade bread. Dear Reader, these people are correct.

I’ve wanted to make bread for a long time. Growing up, my grandma had a breadmaker which she used on pretty rare occasion, so my brain took that mixed with the fact that to make bread you need this living ingredient called yeast and decided that making bread is incredibly difficult–so difficult that one needs a machine that’s sole task is to make bread–and I just never attempted it. Also I knew it was time-consuming and I think we’ve established here already that as a millenial I need instant gratification.

But all of that was super dumb of me because, like, I have the entire internet and can learn to do just about anything while sitting on the couch in my underwear, and if I’d taken two seconds to watch a video of people making bread I would have realized long ago that this shit is easy AND yields amazing results. I can say with certainty that homemade bread, unlike Pacific Rim and becoming an adult, does in fact live up to the hype.

So I watched about twenty videos in which everyone did things just slightly differently, and because I have a very weird personality where I can’t just do the easiest version of something because I assume that’s too easy so it must be cutting corners, I picked out a how-to that seemed just difficult enough to not be faking it, but easy enough so that I would succeed because another facet of my personality, stemming from being only slightly above average as a child and thus praised for what I thought was pretty normal behavior, is that I ABSOLUTELY CANNOT FAIL AT ANYTHING EVER. (I mean I do, but it really fucks me up when that happens.)

Step one was to make sure the yeast was alive and to feed it. Dear Reader, I gave up meat over a year ago because I don’t want to eat things that are alive (except fish which I’ve convinced myself, well, I know they’re alive okay? I’M TRYING HERE), and yet there I was, offering a meal to the little yeasties, literally fattening them up with with sugar like a forest witch coaxing strange children into her house to eat the walls. But I did it. I brought the yeast to life just to murder it. And I’d do it again.

After you’ve noted that your yeast is foamy (and smells like a frat pledge who died of alcohol poisoning), you make dough. Did you know that bread is basically flour and water? I assumed there were other things like butter, milk, eggs, and all the other baking type things (perhaps a soda or a powder or even both!), but no, it’s basically flour and water (and yeast and sugar and salt and oil in the case of what I made but IT’S BASICALLY JUST FLOUR AND WATER, OKAY?) And boy oh boy is it a LOT of flour. I am very into being healthy and making good food choices, and bread is really…not that, but it is delicious, and because carbs were so scarce for our ancestors we crave them now, which all basically makes bread impossible to resist so because biology and evolution are against me here, I feel okay about giving in.

Beyond homemade bread smelling and tasting amazing, the action of kneading dough is so pleasantly visceral that I would say the experience of physically making the bread is almost necessary to get complete enjoyment out of it. I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy baking, so maybe this is just another aspect of my odd character, but when I make food I need to know knowing why I’m doing what what I’m doing, that kneading the dough is building up gluten and moving around the yeast to allow it to eat more sugars, and that will contribute to a fluffy final product. The food didn’t just happen, I made it happen, and there’s some science behind it that I can put to use when making other things. (Thanks, Alton Brown.)

But more than that (and warning: this is fucking weird), the act of kneading dough felt very ancient. Like praying or walking alone in the woods, it felt a bit like I was calling up muscle memory from my ancestors. Smashing this squishy ball of processed ingredients that I didn’t work hard at all to collect over and over into a counter top that I didn’t craft in my air-conditioned kitchen somehow made me feel like I was doing something wholly organic and vital to the human condition. This was a part of why humans exist: to experience this exact act.

I told you it was fucking weird.

So I made the dough and I set it to rise:

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Sad beige ball, oh just wait to see what you become.

And it rose because THE YEAST IS ALIVE:

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See beige ball? Now you’re a beige balloon!

And I punched the fuck out of it, placed it in a loaf pan, let is rise again, and baked it and omfg, Dear Reader, omfg.

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Sitting on a muffin tin because I don’t have a cooling rack.

I. Made. Bread. It’s not perfect, but it’s mine.

And then I made that bread into a motherfucking grilled cheese sandwich because I am that extra.

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I did not measure the weight of the cheese or the bread. I already knew how many calories it contained: exactly too many.

This isn’t something I can do often because the next day I felt like death. In fact, I’m still suffering a bit from wheat gut two days out, but it was worth it. This bread was marvelous and it made me feel a little (actually, a lot) like a hearth goddess. So I implore you, Dear Reader, if your soul is craving something you just can’t place, put on your wheat crown and knead you some dough.

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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

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.

Vacancy – 1.09

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

drop-of-water-607237_640Lorelei pushed the curtains away as she curled herself up on the window seat. Outside, an open field was glowing back in golden oranges under the morning sun despite how late she knew it really was. Her heart raced at the familiar sight, momentarily forgetting she was far from that place, but dropping the curtain back between her and the scene didn’t immediately put it out of her mind. With a sigh, she took up her phone from the nightstand and opened the messages. As she scrolled through their words, her heart ball itself up, threw itself against her chest repeatedly, then finally settled, utterly deflated.

She scrolled to ‘Mom’ and typed out a message to her, I’m fine, please don’t worry. I won’t be coming back soon. Love you.

Once the message had been sent, she accessed her bank account and sent a large transfer, pouted a second over her near-empty account, then quickly powered the phone off and tossed it onto the bed. Even if things went horribly wrong tonight, she would stick to her word: she wasn’t going back.

After the chandelier had fallen that morning, there were more strange occurrences all over the grounds–strange even for Moonlit Shores Manor, Ziah had remarked with a faraway look in her eyes. A stove blew up in the kitchen with the dinner’s roasts inside, a plant that wasn’t known to eat people tried to munch on the toddler of a guest, and four separate tubs overflowed with a bright blue goop at the same time. A valiant effort by the fairies quickly cleaned up the messes, and guests were expertly shuffled around by Ziah, and Lorelei noticed that there was always an extra room ready, so she was struggling with the idea that the manor was rebelling against her human presence, but Grier continued to mumble about curses when Lorelei was in earshot. She had tried to hole herself up in the office and continue to tidy it, but by the end of the day, she was worried the whole place might come down around them.

Ziah declared she would put an end to the whole thing after the dessert cart broke a wheel and toppled onto a family of satyrs. She made a rushed phone call then informed the staff there would be an emergency meeting downstairs at 2:30am before heading off to bed herself.

Lorelei had found sleep impossible, fearing they both would and would not find the source of the manor’s troubles that night. She slid off the window seat, about a half an hour before their meeting time, and tiptoed to the door, sneaking down the hall to the common room. A low fire was crackling in the hearth, and she went for the couch, but found Hotaru there instead.

The girl was hunched over a small bowl in her lap, the straight bob of black hair falling like a curtain on either side of her face. From the bowl, a funnel of water had risen and was pulsating just at the surface. Hotaru’s eyes were fixated on the funnel, and Lorelei on Hotaru. The girl was surely controlling the water, but that was impossible, wasn’t it? In her stunned silence, Lorelei realized she’d stood there too long to not make the situation awkward, but wasn’t going to let that stop her. “Wow.”

Hotaru snapped her face up, and the funnel fell, splashing into the bowl and subsequently all over the girl.

Lorelei grabbed a stray blanket from another chair and traded the girl the blanket for the bowl, apologizing.

“No, it’s okay,” Hotaru said quietly, frowning, “It’s my fault, I should have been better focused.”

“So you were doing that?” Lorelei screwed up her face, “That was amazing.”

“Really?” Hotaru finished sopping up the water and placed the blanket on the coffee table.

Lorelei nodded, mouth open.

“Ayoyagi says my skills are still very juvenile.”

She scrunched up her face, “What the hell does he know?” When the girl laughed, Lorelei offered the bowl back to her her, “I’ve never seen anyone do anything like that before. Will you show me again?”

Hotaru hesitated, then took the bowl, “Are you sure?”

“Yes!”

The girl bit her lip and studied what was left of the water. After a moment, a bubble raised on the surface as if something were pushing it up from underneath. Then it raised higher and higher until it separated itself from the bottom of the bowl all together. The water floated in an orb above the bowl, and Lorelei had the strong urge to poke it, but restrained herself.

Hotaru nodded her head, and the orb bounced in the air up to the ceiling, then slowly came back down, gently placing itself back in the bowl. The water sloshed a moment then settled as if nothing had happened. “What do you think?”

“I–it’s just…wow.”

Hotaru giggled, “I used to not be able to separate it out. I’m pretty proud of that.”

“You should be!” Lorelei fell back onto the couch, “I didn’t know the world could be like this.”

“Like what?” the girl placed the bowl on the coffee table and pulled her knees into her chest.

“Oh,” Lorelei stuttered, “I just didn’t grow up around all this,” she motioned to the room, “It’s weird. It’s all stuff you see on TV or read in books. It’s not supposed to be like this in real life.”

Hotaru sighed a little, “Sometimes I wish it weren’t real life.” She stood up from the couch, “It’s almost time for the meeting.”

 

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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

Vacancy – 1.06

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

pexels-photo-237898The man eyed Lorelei, and she returned the look. “I didn’t think I was gone that long,” he cracked a half smile, exposing bright white teeth, then extended a hand, “You must be the manor’s newest staffer. Name’s Conrad.”

“Conrad,” she searched her mind then took his hand, “Someone may have mentioned you.” She played at coyness, though it was glaringly clear in her mind that Ren had suggested enlisting Conrad to wipe her memory earlier that day. “I’m Lorelei.”

 

 

“A lorelei? Well, that makes sense!” he shook her hand a bit longer than he should have. When she glanced down at the shake, he broke it off then squeezed the back of his neck. “Ziah has been needing the help, and it’s always nice to have a new face around.”

“Well, I’m not exactly hired yet,” she cautioned as he turned and started for the cart where the stone creatures were loading the last of the luggage. She hurried behind him, “You work at the manor?”

“Onsite apothecary,” he nodded, tucking his book into his satchel. He easily hopped up into the cart and offered her a hand. She hesitated, “Ziah didn’t say I’d be picking any people up.”

“I’m actually headed back a little early.” He shifted his gaze away and sighed, “Just dumb luck you were here, otherwise I’d be walking back to my bike.” She stared at his offered hand again, and when she didn’t take it, he faltered, “I mean, if it’s okay.”

Lorelei shrugged and hoisted herself into the cart without his help. “Just don’t like, grow horns or something, okay?”

Conrad responded, but his voice sounded far away and hollow the moment the stags took them back through the archway. If she had to explain it, Lorelei would have called it nothingness, the feeling of being in that dark place between the train station and the forest. She shivered when they left the tunnel, but this time the forest’s darkness was familiar and almost inviting.

“So, you must have been at the manor for, what, only a few days?” Conrad was leaning lazily against the seat, turned slightly toward her.

Lorelei pinched her knees together at the far end of the bench, “Less than twenty four hours, actually.” It sounded more impressive when she said it aloud, and she allowed herself to smile just a bit.

Conrad nodded, “It has that effect on people.”

They sat in the quiet, bumping along the pathway. Lorelei tapped her foot and wrung her hands, but her nerves weren’t a product of the shadows beyond the trees this time. She had a very distinct feeling Ziah would not like this one bit.

“So, are you from Moonlit Shores?”

Unsure what he meant, she motioned randomly into the forest, “Uh, no, I’m from a little ways west.”

“So what, you came out her on vacation and ended up with a job?” He asked like it couldn’t be true.

She sucked in her breath and gave him a curt nod, “Almost.”

Conrad smiled, “Ziah is particularly persuasive.” Lorelei thought about the woman’s cat-like eyes and flowing black hair. It was an understatement.

Before he could ask her anything else, she turned fully toward him, “And you’re an apothecary?”

“Yeah,” his cheeks went red, “I’ve completed all the formal training, trust me,” he tapped his bag, “These are all elective. Since we get so many different guests at the manor, I need to keep up on, well, everything.”

“Oh,” she squinted with only a little idea what an apothecary actually was, but was too afraid to ask, “That’s cool.”

He sighed and leaned back into the cart, “It’s always good to be back home though.”

“You live at the manor?”

“We all do,” he was staring up at the sky through the trees, “It’s a nice perk, no commute.”

Lorelei thought hard for a moment. She hadn’t been considering where she would live if she was offered the position at the manor. Home would just become a place she once lived, everything and everyone left behind. Her chest felt tight, even at the thought of losing the things she was running away from, and she felt tears prick at the back of her eyes.

“Are you all right?”

Conrad had leaned too far forward and was studying her with a knit brow, his face inches from her own. She backed into the seat of the cart, any possibility of tears blinked away, “Yes. Definitely fine.”

“Sorry,” he sat back again quickly, scratching his head, “you looked, uh, sad.”

“I’m just worried,” she half-lied, “A lot of things are weird for me right now.”

“Ah,” he nodded, “Same. You’re not originally from a community like ours, are you?”

Lorelei couldn’t answer, and she dared not look at him. Was it that obvious? Could he read her thoughts? She’d encountered weirder things that day, he may as well be in her mind that moment. I’m human! She shouted in her head, Please don’t kill me!

“It’s becoming more common,” he said, no sign that he’d heard anything she’d telepathically yelled at him, “So many are halfsies or changelings, I mean, Arista herself is halfsies.”

He sounded like a child, suddenly, and she almost laughed. “I’m not familiar with that term,” she ventured carefully.

“Halfsies? When you’re part of one thing and part of another, sometimes even human. Arista is zero percent human, though, of course.”

She felt her heartbeat a little harder as she watched him roll his eyes. Man, these people didn’t like humans.

“Wait, did you mean changeling? Like, when you’ve been misplaced. Changelings grow up out there, in the other world. They always eventually find us though.”

“That’s it,” she pointed at him knowingly, “That’s me. A changeling. I don’t know anything about all this. But I’m, like, here now.”

“A changeling,” his eyes were wide, “Fascinating.” Then he smirked, “I should have known. I mean, for a second back there I thought you were a human!” Lorelei forced out a laugh along with him. “But Arista would never allow that. Gods, I can’t even imagine.”

“I haven’t met Arista yet.”

He grimaced, “You might change-ling your mind about staying if you do.”

Lorelei tried to contain herself, but the attempt at a pun was as bad as it was good, and she sputtered out a laugh.

Conrad stared at her a moment then shook his head, “I’m sorry, that was not funny.”

“No, it was,” she wiped at her eyes, catching her breath, “Stupid, but funny.”

“Well, sorry to say your sense of humor might not fit in at the manor,” he was grinning stupidly, “Elves and fairies can be pretty humorless.”

“Fairies?” Lorelei cut the laughter short, remembering the winged woman who had flown out of the laundry bin.

“Yeah, we’ve got at least a hundred, but they travel a lot.”

“That was a fairy,” Lorelei repeated to herself, staring down at her lap, “And Ren’s ears…”

“Took a course on elven biology over the summer,” Conrad snorted, “I can confirm they do not have a funny bone. Hey, there’s my bike.”

At the edge of the path, tucked under a tree, was the outline of a motorbike and the slight shine of metal. Conrad hopped out of the cart as it continued to travel down the path. He jogged ahead and walked the bike out from under the ferns. Lorelei saw all this and didn’t see it at the same time. In her mind she saw Ren and the small winged woman and the horned horse, and things both made sense and didn’t.

“It was nice meeting you,” Conrad’s voice reminded her she was in the presence of another human–or not–and she mumbled back a similar platitude. He started his bike and mounted it, looking back at her, “What did you say your name was?”

She told him with a frown, annoyed to repeat herself. He nodded slowly, almost bewildered, then popped on his helmet and drove ahead, disappearing down the path, the sound of his bike lingering long after his form was gone.  

Some time later, the stags brought her back out of the forest, and she was surprised to see the sun was setting beyond the manor and the grounds were cast in an orange and purple haze. The rest of the trip was a strange swirl of trying to accept the absolutely unbelievable, and wondering where the hidden cameras were. Worse, she began to consider if this were some kind of joke being played on her by those she’d wronged. When she entered into the foyer after dropping off the cart and luggage at the barn, her mind had still not settled. Ziah looked up at her with a smile over the reception desk. She dropped the papers she’d been shuffling and slammed her hands on the desk with wide, excited eyes, “You’re back!”

“You’re not an alien.” Lorelei found herself pointing at the woman.

“I never said I was,” Ziah took a deep breath then put on a grand, bright smile. Even from under deep eye circles, it was infectious.

Lorelei smiled back, laughing a bit at her own words. “I met Conrad,” she said as if that explained everything. “I told him I was…a changeling?”

“Well thank gods for that.” She glanced up at the clock then back at her, “There’s a lot to discuss, but right now I need to work. In about thirty minutes, we’re hosting a meet and greet, so go get fancied up a bit and meet me back down here.”

Lorelei hustled up the stairs and into her room solely at the urgency in Ziah’s voice. She paused for a moment, wondering why she didn’t insist on the answers she’d been hoping to get the whole cart ride, but the thought was fleeting. In the adjacent bathroom, she hopped in and out of the shower, and dressed in a short, loose fitting dress she found at the bottom of her bag. Beneath it her cell phone had been buried, and after a second of contemplation, she snatched it up and shoved it into an opportune pocket before hurrying back down to check in.

Ziah stood at the counter, changed into a body-hugging, scarlet number and matching lipstick. Lorelei felt twelve years old in comparison. And yet the woman smile at her, blinking long lashes, and told her, “You look lovely,” and Lorelei absolutely believed her.

She could hear the rumble before they even turned into the hall that lead to the white room. She was shocked to see, upon entering, the size had at least tripled. There was a mass of people inside, but she could see over every head but one, Seamus, who was regaling a group of dwarves with some tale that made them all laugh. Ziah pushed a tray into her hands, covered in bready balls of cheese with a crisp meat topping, and told her to make rounds. She attempted to, but the dwarves were on her in an instant and gobbled them up with grins hidden under big, bushy beards and mustaches. She looked to Ziah for help, but the woman shrugged with a smile, headed in the opposite direction, mouthing to her above the crowd, “Just make them feel welcome.”

Lorelei found a counter for the empty tray and glanced about at the short men. They were so joyous she didn’t feel her presence was needed anywhere, but she certainly didn’t feel unwelcomed either. She laid eyes on a dark corner of the room where one dwarf sat atop a stool, stein in hand. She went to stand near him and leaned against the wall, “Hello.” He raised his mug to her with a nod, then turned his gaze back out to the crowd.

She slid her hand into her pocket and gripped her phone. There would be so many messages, her stomach turned at just the thought, and she pulled it out to stare down at the black screen. As she contemplated dumping it in a half-empty pitcher beside her, the device was slipped from her hands by a set of short, stubby fingers.

Lorelei scrambled, but the dwarf who had taken it was grinning ear to ear. “What’s this?”

“Uh,” her mind spun. These were dwarves, Ren was an elf, and there were fairies living in the walls. Did any of them know about this kind of technology? Was she totally outed?

“Oh, a Berry!” he exclaimed happily, “Haven’t seen one of these in a while. Outdated.”

Lorelei pouted, her phone was only about six months old.

“That’s okay though,” he flipped it over and pulled off the back cover in a shockingly swift move for such small, pudgy fingers. From his breast pocket, he fished a roll of cloth that unfurled to show a number of tiny tools, and from a satchel on his waist, he revealed a small, wooden box. Lining up the tools beside the phone on a table, he went to work. With the sharpest of the tools, he poked into the back of the phone and removed something, Lorelei wincing all the while, but afraid to stop him. From the box he carefully selected a metallic chip and slid it into place. A few more seconds of tinkering, and then the back went on again, and he presented it to Lorelei with a flourish.

She took it slowly, staring at him rather than the device, afraid of what had become of it.

He bounced on his heels and nodded at her, “Free upgrade, my dear. Please, do try it.”

Lorelei held in the button to switch it on, and it came to life with a blue light, a firefly flitting across the screen then, to her amazement, popping out and whooshing around her head before returning back into the phone’s screen and disappearing.

“Hope you don’t mind, one of my personal projects.”

When the screen came back on, everything seemed normal enough. She did indeed have a pouring in of missed calls, messages, emails, and she could feel sweat instantly begin to form on her brow. “Just swipe to the left, my dear.”

What would have been local and world news was replaced with a new screen and set of applications she’d never seen before.

“Don’t know how you’ve been getting about without those,” he chuckled, incredibly pleased, “And plugging it in, you don’t have to do that anymore,” he waved, “So archaic. Holding it will be enough.”

“Welcome, welcome!” A booming voice sounded from the far end of the room, and the dwarf threw his hands up and shouted along with the others in the room. Lorelei stammered out a thank you, and he grinned before running off toward the rest of the gathered dwarves. She stared out at the little man who’d been hoisted onto another’s shoulders. He needed no microphone as his voice carried through the room. “So good to see you all. This year is proving to be one of our biggest ever! From the Buckhorns of Birmingham–” there was a loud cheer from the left end of the room, “to the O’Raighleys of East Shire–” and an even louder cheer from the right end, “And all in between, I couldn’t be more pleased! Now I know we all have much to discuss, new technologies, exciting inventions, but that is all for later. Tonight, we party!”

The entire room erupted so that Lorelei thought the manor might come tumbling down. She held her breath as the dwarves scurried about, clanging steins and pouring themselves new drinks. The room smelled of sweet barley and hot spices, and music erupted from somewhere in the mess. A dwarf grabbed her free hand and pulled her out to the middle of the floor and she found herself skipping about in a circle with him. They clapped and she clapped back, finding herself falling into laughter and bumping into Ziah who had been pulled out as well. The pending messages on her newly upgraded phone faded as she slipped it back into her pocket.

When she looked up from the dwarves, she noticed Conrad standing at the back wall, leaning near the door where Hotaru bustled in and out with another towering tray of food. He gave her a brief nod, and she waved back.

After perhaps hours of dancing and trying to help serve the never-ending trays of food, Ziah guided her to the back of the room. “I’m sure you’re exhausted,” she breathed, looking more tired than ever.

She felt it all at once, and blinked, “Yes. Definitely.”

She led her out of the room and down a tight corridor. They slipped through a hidden door that opened onto a narrow set of stairs, traveled up, and found Lorelei’s room. Inside, she shut the door behind her. “I’m not going to come up here tomorrow morning and find an empty room am I?”

“Am I going to run away in the night?” she snickered, “I don’t think I could if I wanted to. I don’t really know where I am.”

“Good,” Ziah snorted, “because I’m very much wanting to offer you this job, provided I can get a yes from Arista.”

Lorelei felt her chest tighten. “That would be wonderful,” she heard herself saying.

“But Arista, she hates humans, and she could never know what you really are, do you understand that?”

“Sure, well I think I convinced that guy, Conrad.”

“Big deal,” Ziah rolled her eyes playfully, “But seriously, Arista is powerful, and it might be…unsafe for you. And maybe for me.”

Lorelei looked her over, the sleep in her eyes heavy. She still knew nothing of this world, she wasn’t sure if she even truly liked it or just disliked the alternative more, but she wanted to stay.

And still.

She sighed heavily and cocked her head, “I know my word means very little to you, but if you made me leave here, I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t tell anyone. No one would believe me anyway,” she chuckled under her breath, “Like I said, I’ve got no one out there to tell. Not really. So if you want me to go, if that’s the safest and best thing, I will. So, why take the risk?”

Ziah was quiet a long moment, and Lorelei feared she may have written her resignation letter before even getting the offer.

“Because you’re asking that.” Ziah looked her over, “And, really, you’re more like us than you know.”

The woman left with a promise to actually let her sleep in the next morning, and Lorelei fell back onto the bed. She held her phone up to her face and it came to life without her needing to press a button. Instinctively, it showed her a screen with all her missed messages, something it never used to do, then when she felt her anxiety rise, the little blue firefly came back and zipped away, turning the screen off again. She dumped the phone onto the nightstand and slid under the covers.

 

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