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 – 1.06

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.

 

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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