Vacancy – 2.01 – The Box

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

v 2.01

Lorelei Fischer stood at the front desk of Moonlit Shores Manor, head dipped down over a tome of thick pages so engrossed with the odd building’s moving layout–it had to be in there somewhere, but where?–that she did not hear the heavy footfalls coming into the foyer. It was only when letters were dropped atop the book that she was startled backward, abruptly looking up and seeing Helena, the mail carrier. She was, of course, right on time, as always, wearing something like half a grin and half a grimace. Lorelei was used to the grey locks of the woman, her sharp features, her inordinate height, but the wings were always a bit of a shock.

After exchanging embarrassed pleasantries, she flipped through the mail and separated out what was meant for guests, disappointed yet again to not receive any word from Ms. Pennycress, but the package at the pile’s bottom soon stole her attention. Square and wrapped in thick, brown paper, the package was tied with a velvety ribbon, and from under it was secured a card.

The card’s outside was water-stained, the To and From illegible, but inside the words were clear:

My deepest gratitude for a most pleasant stay to my favorite employee at Moonlit Shores Manor. Tampering by any other will earn the meddler grave disappointment and a gruesome curse.

“That’s ominous,” Lorelei mumbled to herself, looking up again, but the mailwoman had gone and with her any chance for clarification.

With a shrug, she turned to secure it in the office when Ziah emerged from the door behind the counter. Lorelei handed off the package, asking for her thoughts: Ziah typically had all the answers anyway.

“Oh, well, this is…lovely.” Her voice, which could almost always be described as a purr when she was not shouting, this time sounded far away and dreamy.

Lorelei eyed the box again, nicely wrapped, but nothing extraordinary, then her companion, “I suppose.”

From the dining room, Conrad passed through the foyer carrying a basket filled with dried sprigs and flowers. He offered them a wave and a smile as he hurried toward the basement, and Lorelei waved a bit overzealously back, though when she turned back to Ziah, the woman appeared to have not noticed him at all.

“Ya know, I bet it is for you,” she sighed, staring at the succubus, “I bet people fall in love with you all the time. Must be nice.” Ziah did not respond, but instead lifted the box, blinking dark cat eyes as she examined the packaging. She turned it over delicately in her hands then held it to her ear.

Lorelei raised her voice, “So, uh, who do you think it’s for?”

Ziah cocked her head, her answer more alarming in how it sounded than what she said, “I don’t know.”

“Are you feeling okay?” Lorelei waved a hand before Ziah’s face, and when the woman didn’t react, she snatched the parcel back. Ziah, startled, lunged for it, then stopped herself with a gasp.

“That isn’t good.” The woman backed away from the girl, gripping the counter and glancing worriedly about the room. Nibbling on a nail, Ziah’s eyes widened when Grier entered the foyer, and she stopped him and ordered him to take the box from Lorelei.

The teen balanced the parcel in one hand and rolled his eye, though the other milky and scarred one looked equally annoyed. “Now what?”

“Hm, maybe I’m wrong,” Ziah touched a finger to her lips, “I felt very…odd with that thing. Like I was enchanted, sort of like, well, how I imagine people might feel around me. You didn’t get that feeling, Lore?”

She shook her head.

“Stop that!” Ziah suddenly slapped the box from Grier’s hand. A corner of the paper was torn and his eyes–even the white one–were glassy.

Ziah kicked the package over to Lorelei’s feet, “You may be the only one who can be trusted with this,” she shifted her gaze left and right, “for reasons. Hold onto it. Tight. Maybe someone here is expecting it.”

With the package in hand, and Ziah and Grier in tow, Lorelei went on through the dining room and into the kitchen, bustling as ever with bubbling and chopping. Ando’s voice rang out the minute she crossed the threshold, “No!”

She stopped, letting the door swing backward and hearing it connect with Grier’s face, and he swore from his new spot on the ground.

“Bad magic,” the man emerged from behind a steaming pot, his eyes trained on the package.

“How do you know?” Lorelei could see Hotaru peeking out from the pantry as her uncle came toward them, brandishing a cleaver.

He crossed both sets of arms and frowned, his curt mustache twitching, “You don’t live over five hundred years and not know bad magic when you feel it. Get it out of my kitchen before it taints lunch!”

Lorelei backed out with the box clenched tightly to her chest. “So we should throw this away, right?” She knew as soon as she asked what the answer would be. Both Grier and Ziah shook their heads frantically, insisting that of course not, she shouldn’t be so silly, the contents would surely outweigh whatever mishap might befall them, and Ando was prone to exaggeration anyway–he was barely three hundred from what they understood.

“And tampering with mail is a federal offence!” Grier reminded them with a knowing look.

Lorelei scowled, pointing to the tear he’d made, “You’re one to talk.” She lead them through the dining room where a few guests were enjoying a late breakfast, and out onto the empty side porch. Clearing her throat, she tucked the box under her arm, “Plus, I imagine you people have different rules about these things.”

Just as Grier began to growl in her ear about what she meant by you people, Ziah asked more loudly with an air of forced casualty something more pressing, “Where are you taking it?”

“Ren is usually pretty sensible.” Lorelei marched toward the barn, her pace quickening as she tried to shake them, and found the elf inside as she expected. He tended to something large and loud concealed inside the stables, his disinterest in them changing when he eyed what Lorelei was holding. “This stupid box is cursed,” she said matter-of-factly, presenting it to him.

As Ziah and Grier protested the meaning of cursed, a pair of small hands whipped the package away from Lorelei. Hotaru paced the length of the barn, evading Ren, and turned the package over as she stared down at it. Lorelei followed, as did the other three, but the girl was suddenly graceful even with her eyes glued to the box, murmuring how pretty it was.

“You see?” Lorelei gestured to her, but even Ren’s attention had all but fallen to the mysterious container. “Ren?”

He twitched a long ear toward her and stood straight, clasping his hands behind his back. Ziah had gotten the package back, for only a moment, when Ren’s companion scampered out from his pocket and tripped Hotaru, then Grier had stolen it from her hands. With his superior reach, Ren plucked it away from the boy finally and held it above all of their heads, his winged, cat-like friend perched on his shoulder, reading the card. “Puzzling.”

With a bit of a struggle, the elf handed it to Lorelei, “The answer is likely to find its true owner. I can assist with this.”

There was a clatter from the shadows of the stable. “Are you sure?”

Without even a glance back at whatever creature was causing the ruckus, Ren nodded, “Yes.”

The band of five traipsed across the yard again, Lorelei with a tight grip on the box and an even tighter frown. At this point, she realized, she might not even be able to discard it as they’d all just clamor after it, and she knew she’d feel awfully guilty if any of them came down with a particularly bad case of being cursed, despite how vague that had been. Her own uncharmed status seemed to make her immune–it was good for something, at least–but she wondered how long the others would remain amicable while she denied them what they wanted. Especially those that knew her secret.

As they took to the stairs to Moonlit Shores Manor’s basement, bright, flitting lights crossing her path stopped them all. Bur, the head of the manor’s janitorial staff, hovered just before Lorelei’s nose. “What you got there?”

She was blurry for a second, then Lorelei was able to focus, the tiny woman’s bright red hair haloing around her body in a mass, and her wings flapping so quickly they were transparent.

“Nothing,” Lorelei answered quickly, remembering all the ways she’d been tricked by Bur’s ilk in the past few months, “So don’t worry–hey!” The box was lifted from her hands straight up to the ceiling of the stairwell. She felt the lurch of those behind her reaching for it and steadied herself with a hand on each railing to hold them back and keep herself from tumbling forward.

The blonde fairy, Tuatha, stuck her tongue out from the underside of the box where she held it up, and even Habian’s melancholic gaze held a special sort of excitement as he carried the package by the corner of its bow down toward the base of the stairs.

“You guys, wait!” Lorelei thundered down the stairs after the three dots of light, the sound of her colleagues behind her a great catalyst to move quickly. She followed the fairies across the boardwalk over the black pools and into the long, stone corridor. They were out of reach and impossibly fast, but came to an abrupt halt when one of the doors swung open and Conrad stepped out into the hallway.

The package bounced off Conrad’s head and fell to the floor at his feet, and the fairies immediately began bickering with one another about whose fault the mishap had been. Lorelei shouted at him to stop, but he’d already picked it up and his jaw had gone slack. He’d been the fastest yet.

Swearing, Lorelei ripped the box from his hands before he could react and pushed past him into the apothecary, rounding on the small crowd that nearly trampled one another to get in through the door. “Listen up, all of you,” she held the box over her head, “You’re acting crazy. This is just a stupid box, and whatever’s inside might just kill you if you open up. Is that a chance any of you are willing to take?”

Their voices came at her all at once, a garbled mess of pleading and shouting, some of them turning on each other. She watched their faces change as they fought, arguing, calling names, hardly recognizing people she would have considered friends earlier in the day. Her stomach twisted into a knot, “Stop it!”

A hush fell over them as they turned their eyes back to her, slowly. Too slowly for comfort.

“Clearly we can’t tell who this really belongs to, so–”

“Obviously it’s for me,” Ziah announced, jutting out a hip and holding her head up, “You said it yourself, Lorelei, people send me gifts all the time.”

“Of course you’d think that,” Grier huffed.

“Well, it’s obviously not meant for you,” Ziah scowled back.

The boy grinned, “You don’t think someone might send me a big old thank you? Like maybe your sister?”

While Lorelei contemplated how similar the magic of the box was to a succubus, Hotaru piped up, a particularly annoyed look to her scrunched up face, “You know there are other ways to earn gratitude than sleeping around. Like taking special care of dietary restrictions!”

“Or care of beloved companions,” Ren spoke a bit more loudly than he was wont to do, his pet chirping in agreement.

“Or how about the guests themselves?” Conrad sneered at the elf, and was met with a less than stoic gaze.

As they fell again into bickering, the fairies’ tiny voices buzzing about as well, Lorelei sighed and rubbed her temples. This was getting her nowhere.

“There you all are!” Arista’s dagger of a voice sliced through them all as she appeared in the doorway, Seamus cowering behind her. “What is all this racket, and why can’t it wait until after hours? I had to check someone in myself just now, and I’m certainly not paying all of you so that I can do your jobs!” She stomped into the room, walking straight up to Lorelei, “Specifically, siren, your job! I didn’t expect to have a–” she breathed in suddenly, her eyes falling to the parcel, “to have a, uh, huh.” Arista leaned over, Seamus just behind her, and she plucked the box from Lorelei’s hands, “How peculiar. Is it…is it meant for someone?”

With a long, low breath, Lorelei, prepared herself. She screwed up her courage and grabbed the box back, flying past the others and down the hall. Behind her, she could hear the group realizing what had happened and their footsteps as they hurried behind her, but she’d already taken to the stairs. Back on the main floor, she skidded past the reception desk and across the foyer into the sitting room.

“Excuse me!” she called out to the couple who was enjoying tea on the loveseat, “If you don’t mind, we’re having a staff meeting. We’ll only be a minute.”

“We?” the man looked behind her where no one stood, then jumped up the minute he saw the mob that plunged into the room.

“The conservatory’s lovely this time of year,” Lorelei nodded at them frantically as she hurried them out and shut the door fast behind them, shivering at the last of the autumn chill. From the front of the room, they were shouting at her, the whole lot of them, and coming at her like a wall. She glanced to the sleeping man for help, but he only rocked methodically and let out a gentle snore. Then Lorelei’s mind ticked, and she held the box–the utterly stupid box–over her head. “Don’t try me! I’ll do it!”

Looks of horror settled on their faces, the fire crackling in the silence left in wake of their arguing. It was warm on Lorelei’s back, doing nothing to alleviate her panicky sweat.

“Do I have your attention now?” Worried heads nodded back at her. “If the wrong one of you opens this box, you’ll be cursed! Do you all understand that? Are you prepared for that?”

“I won’t be!” A chorus of dissent rose up from those before her insisting they were the true recipient. But of course, there was no way to tell, and none of them were being reasonable.

“You’ve all completely lost it,” she felt her arms go lax though she still held the package aloft, “This stupid little box has made you all go completely mad. I should just destroy it.” As she dropped her hands down to fling it in the fire, the group was suddenly louder than they’d ever been. Their faces contorted, and they advanced on her until she froze.

The group appeared as if they might just rip her to shreds right there. If she threw the box in the fire, would its hold over them actually dissipate? And even if it did, would it happen fast enough to save her from being chucked along into the fire right behind it?

The girl sighed, “Fine.” She glanced down at the ribbon, slightly askew now, and the brown paper, corners ruffled. There was only one way out.

Lorelei tugged the bow, and it fell away easily. As the paper unfolded, those assembled gasped, but none converged on her. Instead, a light shone from inside the parcel, blinding for a moment, then it was gone.

“Well, what is it?” Ziah’s voice was panicked, desperate.

“Nothing.” Lorelei turned the empty container toward them, lifting her head and frowning. She shook it, just to be sure, then tossed it toward them, Ren reaching out and catching it, then passing it around.

Lorelei took a deep breath, ready, but nothing came. She did not feel suddenly ill or woebegotten. She took a step but her legs worked, and she didn’t trip on nothing. For a second she was quite pleased, then felt an incredible sense of doom: the curse was likely something much worse than she imagined.

“Nobody invited me to the party.” Britney leaned against the entrance to the sitting room, arms crossed, a lip upturned. No one had heard her enter in the commotion, and the woman seemed especially annoyed at that.

“Oh,” Conrad, rubbed the side of his face, “There was some mail.”

“Stupid, really,” Ziah laughed meekly.

“So dumb,” Grier agreed, “could have been for anyone.”

Britney perked up, raising an eyebrow.

Ren stood very straight and clasped his hands behind his back, “It was supposedly cursed, but it must have been a bit of a hoax.”

“Cursed?” Britney smirked, “And let me guess: she was dumb enough to open it?”

Lorelei felt all their eyes go back to her then watched their faces change again. “What? What’s wrong?” She turned swiftly to glance in the mirror above the fireplace. Marks were forming, red and angry, across her nose, her cheeks, her chin, and leaving white pustules that were already beginning to ooze. They suddenly burned, and she cried out. That stupid box!

“I have something for that!” Conrad announced, striding up to her and whirling her toward him. His face inches from hers, one of the pimples burst and splattered him with white puss. “Yeah, standard one hundred level her. Not to worry!” He gently took her elbow and guided her across the room. Her eyes were swelling.

“Hey, we have lunch plans,” she heard Britney growl from the doorway as they passed.

“Medical emergency, dear.” He lead her with his arm, and though she couldn’t see him, she all but heard him roll his eyes.

Maybe the box wasn’t that stupid after all.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment – 9/17/18

Well it was a bit behind schedule, but it happened! Happy season two premier! More to come, hopefully on time, as fall unfolds.

If you’re enjoying Vacancy, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!

For updates, you can follow the blog or my Twitter or Instagram for reminders of new posts.

Advertisements

Vacancy – 1.24 – Telling Lies

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

v 1.24

Conrad came around the desk, his steps fast and loud on the hardwoods, “Lorelei, meet my brother.”

So, this man, matching Conrad in so many ways, even in how he leaned against the door to their father’s study, was in fact his brother. But that was impossible, wasn’t it? “So there are ghosts here?” Lorelei felt stuck to the spot though she wanted to step back and away from the stranger, her stomach instantly in knots.

“Oh, no,” the man smiled slowly from the side of his mouth, “I’m very much alive.” Even in the darkness she could make out how they shared the same chin, and had this man’s been unbroken, the same nose, but the feeling swimming in her gut when she looked at Conrad’s brother did not bring about the same comforting familiarity as when she looked on Conrad himself. No, this feeling was one of dread.

Lorelei dropped her voice low, turning slightly over her shoulder though she was afraid to take her eyes off him, “But you said he died.”

The man chuckled, “Telling lies about me again?”

“To be fair, I haven’t seen him in years, so he may as well have been dead,” Conrad’s voice had gone cold and unfamiliar, and mixed with the grin his brother wore sent a chill down Lorelei’s spine, “but I’m pretty sure I was just vague enough to leave it open to interpretation.”

“I’m Byron,” the man extended a hand, pushing himself off the doorway, but Conrad cut him off with a few aggressive steps forward. “Oh, a little touchy, I see,” he glanced down at his own hand then dropped it, “or not.”

“What are you doing here?” Conrad’s voice dropped to a low rumble.

Byron pouted, “The prodigal son can’t come home?”

“This isn’t your home anymore.”

“From the looks of it, it’s not yours either,” he shrugged, pacing around the edge of the study. Conrad moved with him, placing himself between Lorelei and his brother. “Figured by now you’d be all settled in, married to that Blackburn girl,” he raised an eyebrow at Lorelei, “That doesn’t look like her though. Apple doesn’t fall far, eh?”

“Don’t,” Conrad growled then took a breath, “Don’t talk like you know me. Now tell me why you’re here.”

“Well, probably the same reason as you, but it looks like we’re both out of luck.” Byron kicked at some of the papers on the floor then turned, “Unless you already have it?”

Conrad stared at him, steely, and Lorelei said nothing. They, of course, had no idea what they were even looking for.

“You’d share wouldn’t you?” Byron took another step toward him, “Like when we were kids?”

Conrad grit his teeth, “There’s nothing here for either of us.”

“No? Well, that doesn’t mean we can’t catch up,” Byron shrugged, “Maybe play a little game? Remember when you used to be playing with something, and I wanted it?”

Conrad reached back and grabbed Lorelei, his fingers digging into her wrist, and he pulled her so that she was behind him. She suspected she should have felt safer, but absolutely did not.

“Remember how I used to just take it?”

“Yeah, you were a jerk then, and I can only imagine you haven’t grown out of it.”

“I wasn’t a very good brother,” he laughed, “Kind of stupid too because I never really wanted what you had, I just didn’t want you to have it.”

Byron raised his hand and with a flash the room lit up. Conrad’s grip around Lorelei’s wrist was gone as he fell to his knees before her, but before she could react, something struck her core, searing through her body. She too wanted to fall into a ball on the ground, but found herself paralyzed, unable to even draw a breath.

Byron took an easy step over Conrad’s body as he groaned on the floor. “It’s cute you thought I wouldn’t attack you.” He got behind Lorelei and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, holding her up against him and pulling her backward toward the door. She wanted to pull away, but couldn’t move.

Conrad rolled onto his knees and staggered to his feet, “What the hell, Byron?”

“Just tell me where the damn deed is.” Byron’s breath was hot on Lorelei’s ear, and it sounded as though he were trying to hide how fatigued he’d suddenly become.

Conrad was coughing, fighting to stand straight, “Deed?”

“To the manor,” Byron shook Lorelei for emphasis, and she began to feel a tingling in her limbs and managed to catch her breath. “Where is it?”

Shaking his head, Conrad focused on them, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and she’s got no idea either, so just let her go.”

“Make me!” She could hear a smile in Byron’s voice. He was enjoying this. “Come on, Conrad, I know you’re better than this.” Lorelei felt her own weight then, as the feeling fully returned in her legs and arms.

With a grunt, Conrad pulled a sachet from his bag.

“One of your little potions? You still do that?” Disappointment dripped from his words, “Come on now, if you refuse to try I’m just going to kill her.”

Lorelei grabbed onto the arm Byron had around her shoulders and pulled down. Catching him off guard and apparently weakened, she managed to spin around in his grasp and wrench her knee upward until it connected with his gut. He coughed, doubling over and releasing her.

The moment she was free of him, Conrad stumbled forward with a fist balled around the sachet and struck his jaw. Byron’s body lifted from the ground and sailed out through the doorway, crashing loudly on the landing. Conrad glanced at his fist, raising his eyebrows in momentary surprise as the sachet melted away, then staggered out the door.

Lorelei heard them on the landing, a shout, and smash, something–possibly human–breaking, but her own senses were dulled and her limbs shaking with either injury or fear, she didn’t know. She blinked about the room for the flashlight, having lost it when she was struck by, what exactly? Had that been magic? Honest to goodness witchcraft? Shaking her head, she ran to the doorway: the pale light streaming in from the window on the landing would surely be all she needed to glimpse the ensuring battle.

The boys were wrestling. She couldn’t tell who had the upper hand as they rolled into the wall and knocked a portrait to the floor. Conrad threw another punch and it was dodged, then Byron caught him in the face with his own elbow, but it had looked to be accidental. Neither seemed to be doing much damage so close to one another, and with Byron’s threat of murder long forgotten, Lorelei sighed to herself, “This is disappointing.”

Perhaps louder than she meant, her words froze them, and they both glanced back at her. “Uh,” she swallowed, “I mean, you’re witches–sorry, warlocks–I just didn’t expect…whatever this is.”

The two then locked eyes with one another, each grimaced as if they realized it at the same moment, and the room lit up with a brilliant green flash and a deafening crack. Lorelei felt the light like a wave as it passed through her, and she grabbed the doorway to stay on her feet, and when it went out, the two stood on opposite sides of the landing.

The portrait they had knocked down flew up from the floor unaided toward Conrad, and he raised an arm just before it crashed into him. Byron grunted, annoyed, flicking his hand in front of his face, and the finial from atop the stair’s railing was sent toward Conrad’s head. This time, Conrad threw his hand out and redirected the finial so that it took a turn and fell down the shaft, bouncing off the landing with a crack on the stories below.

Again, Byron made an annoyed sound in the back of his throat and swept his arm in front of himself. A chair slid out from against the wall, and Conrad used both arms to send it away, toward Byron, where it stopped at his feet.

“Deflect, deflect, deflect!” Byron started flipping both of his hands into the air from which cracks of toxically green bolts were flinging, “How am I supposed to know who’s better if you don’t do something?”

“You’re insane.” The hissing green strikes died out just at the edge of where Conrad held his hands. He’d taken a wide stance and dipped his head low.

“No, our father was. Insane for leaving everything to you without testing your mettle.”

“Arista manages the manor,” Conrad continued to deflect the sparks, “I didn’t even know there was a deed until right now.”

“Regardless,” Byron’s smile had permanently changed to a tight, angry line, “it was meant to go to you. Father told me the deed was hidden somewhere I would never think to look for it, suggesting it was somewhere you would.”

Conrad threw his hands wide and knocked Byron back, “I have no idea, and frankly, I don’t care.”

His brother hit the wall beside where Lorelei stood and blinked. The house fell quiet, the rain echoing outside.

“Fine, a little encouragement should do the trick.” In a swift movement, Byron swam his hand in front of his face and alighted a piece of wood, splintered in their earlier scuffle, to sail through the air toward Lorelei. She gasped, the wind off of it flying past her face, but the sliver stopped just at her throat.

Conrad’s eyes went wide from across the landing. When she attempted to duck away, the spear moved with her, and Lorelei quickly stood again, holding herself as still as possible. Perhaps Byron had been sincere when suggesting he’d kill her.

“Somewhere you’d never think to look,” Conrad was glancing out the window, his voice different now, lighter, detached, “That’s what he said, huh?”

A brilliant flash of lightning followed by a crash of thunder shook the house. In its wake, the lawn behind the house was lit, revealing a massive hedge garden. Conrad turned back to his brother, “Have you been to see mom and dad?”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

 

Hey, are you enjoying Vacancy? If so, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!

Podcast: Vacancy 1.07 – Not Polite To Ask

Episode 1.07 – Not Polite To Ask

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

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

Vacancy Episode 1.07 uses these sounds from freesound and soundbible, all of which have been remixed. The inclusion of any sound does not indicate endorsement of this completed work or its author:

Podcast: Vacancy 1.05 – Alone Into The Woods

Episode 1.05 – Alone Into The Woods

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

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

Vacancy Episode 1.05 uses these sounds from freesound, all of which have been remixed. The inclusion of any sound does not indicate endorsement of this completed work or its author:

Vacancy – 1.11 – An Inconvenient Number

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

You can also listen to this episode 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 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 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 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, unbelievable!”) “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

 

Hey, are you enjoying Vacancy? If so, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!