Upgrade – Flash Fiction

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“What are you doing? I want to go.”

“Five minutes,” he pulled open a drawer, it contents rattling against themselves.

“No, now,” she stood with purpose, but didn’t move from the spot.

Ben locked eyes on Lucy then slammed the drawer shut without a word.

When he turned to another drawer and began to rifle through it, she moaned and dropped herself back on the couch, “There’s no way what you’re doing is more important than the previews!”

Ben paused just before wrapping his fingers around the tiny screwdriver, something catching in his throat at her words–or were they his own–but he pushed the feeling away. The tool was small enough to hide in his palm, though it wasn’t as if she’d recognize it. Probably not anyway. Not this time.

“Ya know what? No, fuck it,” Lucy stood again, grabbing her purse, “I’m going without you. You didn’t even read all the comics anyway.”

“Don’t,” he sighed, rolling his head back and regretting introducing her to the extended universe, “Can you just wait a second?”

“I’ve been waiting a second all day!” she ripped her bag open and pulled out a tube of lipgloss as she stormed her way to the mirror in the entryway, “I’m always waiting on you, doing whatever you want. Don’t you ever give a shit about what I want?”

Even as he moved toward her, he felt something inside him pulling him back. Was anything she wanted different from what he wanted? He came up behind her like a ghost, his reflection over her shoulder, but she didn’t even glance at it. The pink she swept across her lips was bright, too bright for Ben’s liking, but the rest of her was nearly perfect. She’d been worth the cost.

“That’s what I thought,” she turned on him, pouting full lips, narrowing heavily-lashed eyes, “Nothing to say. Fucking loser.”

Ben felt her words hit him in the gut so hard he nearly doubled over. “Lucy,” his grip tightened on the screwdriver, “Please.”

“I’m leaving.”

There was blood, there was always blood, and it never failed to surprise Ben, but it was fleeting. The only way to really hide the jack was to cover it completely in organic matter, he’d been told, and accessing it should always be a last resort, but this called for a hard reset. He’d lost track of which number this one was.

Lucy gurgled, her throat flushing itself with a viscous fluid in reaction to the stab to her neck. It added to the cleanup, but it at least muffled the screams. She flailed her arms, but he pinned them expertly behind her back, trapping her between himself and the wall. Ben jiggled the screwdriver against wet, soft tissue until he felt it jab something hard. Back and forth he scraped it across the metal, Lucy making things exponentially difficult as she tried to squirm away. Her eyes had gone red and puffy immediately, and he thought to ask them about disabling that feature.

Finally it clicked, sinking it and catching, and with a twist and push, he’d begun the clock. Now he just had to count and wait, backwards from eight. He whispered the numbers, his mouth against her ear as he held her in place. Something in her eyes recognized what was happening, they always did around five, and he closed his own so he didn’t have to see.

She writhed against him, and if it hadn’t been for the watery sound in her throat and the hot, wet blood on his hand, he might have found it arousing, but he finally reached one, and all at once Lucy stopped moving.

She was heavy then, even for such a little thing, and he crumpled with her onto the floor. The bleeding stopped itself, but the thick black liquid would have to be drained out, and he wasn’t going to bother cleaning anything up until after they’d come to patch her. He was a genius with software, but hardware was a whole different game.

Rolling her body off his, Ben headed for his study. He had a lot of code to rewrite, and he was starting with her affinity for pink.

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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.”

 

Table of Contents  |  Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.05

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

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

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

“Ziah sent me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorelei swallowed hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Finally come for the luggage?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your ride?”

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

“That’s my ride.”

 

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