Vacancy – 1.16

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

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There were no footfalls on the stairs, no clinking dishes in the dining room, not even turning pages in the den. The only sound filling up Moonlit Shores Manor was the creaking of the rocker by the fireplace in which their omnipresent–and that night, their only– guest sat. But as always, he was very little trouble.

It was so quiet, in fact, that if Lorelei closed her eyes and strained, she could hear the gentle patter of rain as it began on the windows, something she wouldn’t normally notice until it had turned into a complete downpour.

It had been all hands on deck once the last guest checked out that morning, with Arista overseeing the scrubbing and polishing of floors, deep-cleaning of bathrooms, the removal of mysterious stains with both cleaners and the right words, and come evening the staff collapsed into the sitting room. Arista and Seamus had retired to their cottage with strict instructions to hold any and all issues until the morning, and Aoyagi had headed to the city with equally strict instructions regarding the kitchen. This left Hotaru a bit giddier than normal and Grier, well, exactly the same as always, and he kept trying to steal her seat out of shear force. She’d finally given up with him squeezing alongside her into one of two identical overstuffed, purple paisley chairs. Across from them, Ziah splayed out on the couch beside Lorelei paying no mind to their antics and sinking into the cushions. She still wore the over-sized, dirty flannel she’d worn to clean all day, unfit for welcoming guests. It seemed the manor was closed.

“Does this happen often?” Lorelei asked hesitantly, pulling a foot up under her on the couch. She certainly hoped the hotel didn’t regularly sit empty with no income.

“Almost never,” Ziah bobbed her head back and grinned, “Isn’t it lovely?” Thunder rumbled far off in the distance.

“The quiet is good,” Ren entered carrying in a tea tray for the group, choosing to sit with them instead of retire to his room above the barn. The little winged creature popped out from his shirt pocket and let out a squeaky mew. “Of course it could always be quieter.”

Conrad followed behind him laden with mugs, handing out the cups as Ren poured, then took the seat beside Lorelei. He lifted his mug, “To a job well done.”

Then, the lights went out.

No one moved for a rather long moment until Lorelei finally spoke, “I bet that almost never happens either.”

“Strange,” Ziah sat up, the faint glow of candles still illuminating the room, “But it’s probably just the storm.”

Then, as if they lived atop a birthday cake, the candles were all snuffed out with one massive blow.

Grier whistled, “And that never ever happens.”

The sounds outside, rain and wind, intensified as their sight was taken away. They sat with their cups, listening to the building storm, their figures silhouettes of shadow against the darkness of the room. Then there was a crash and lightning lit up the room.

Ziah jumped to her feet with a growl, “Conrad, you and Lorelei go flip the breakers downstairs. Ren, come with me to reset the candles. You two,” she pointed at Hotaru and Grier as if they had already committed whatever crime she’d made up in her mind, “stay right here.”

Lorelei took out her phone to light her way as she followed Conrad toward the basement stairs. The darkness in the sitting room had been familiar, but the illumination of her screen made the surrounding darkness that much darker, and approaching the basement steps made her a bit queasy.

The temperature dropped as they descended, the unlit candles eerie in the dark. Lorelei squeezed her arms in tight beside her, “I’m afraid to ask, but how do these candles go out all at once?”

“It’s a spell, sometimes they malfunction.”

There had been hesitation in his voice, and against better judgement she decided to prod, “At the same time the electricity goes out?”

“Yeah,” he grunted, “It…happens.”

At the bottom of the stairs, the pool remained lit in blues and purples from the bio-luminescent creatures that crawled across the rocks, but without additional lighting, their colors were magnified. Lorelei covered the light on her phone and stared out at it, “Wow.”

“You should go swimming sometime,” he gestured out at the water, “It’s warm year round.”

She dropped her voice to a whisper, “With whatever lives in there?”

“Why not?” he smirked, “You’re probably cousins.”

Lorelei screwed up her face then forced out a laugh, “Ha, oh, yeah.” She’d figured out a lorelei was some kind of water being that sang, something like a siren, but sometimes she thought the less she knew the better. An air of mystery–that was the plan.

“Speaking of,” Conrad started down the boardwalk across the water to the basement’s other side, “Is that why you came east? To get closer to the ocean?”

Lorelei swallowed, then spoke assuredly, “Yes.” It was as good a reason as any, better than hers, anyway.

“Well, Moonlit Shores is great for that. Have you been to the beach yet?”

“No.” This realization was odd to Lorelei–she hadn’t thought that the city of Moonlit Shores, the manor’s namesake, was in fact a shore. “I haven’t even been to town yet.”

“It’s not much,” he shrugged, “But I really love it.”

“Did you grow up there?”

“Sort of.” They came around the large rocks that lined the back of the pool and found themselves in the block corridor of the more traditional basement, “I went to school in town, I played there as a kid. My first job was at the fish market.”

Lorelei smiled, “Sounds nice.”

“Yeah but I smelled terrible for a year and half straight,” he sighed, “Okay, so where is the breaker box?”

“You’re asking me?” she lit up his back with her phone.

He turned back to her, the light from his own phone too bright for her eyes, “Yes?” It was more of a question than an answer.

“Haven’t you, like worked and lived here for years? And you don’t know where the breaker is?”

“That does seem like a thing I should know, hu?” She nodded vigorously. “Thing is, it moves a lot, and I haven’t seen it in probably six months.”

“It moves?”

“Well, the manor doesn’t like us messing with it.” There was a decidedly loud creak like the house was settling. Or agreeing. “See?”

Then they were plunged into darkness as their phones died. Simultaneously.

Lorelei tried waking hers up, pressing buttons and flipping it around, but nothing happened. The dwarf had said this couldn’t happen, hadn’t he? She felt a sudden panic at being trapped in the dark with a large body of water between her and the topside of the earth.

“Well, that’s not right,” Conrad’s voice was lower, darker, having lost its typical lilt, and it did nothing for her confidence.

Then a candle flickered before her, illuminating his face in a warm glow. He’d taken one down from the sconce in the wall and lit it.

“Thanks,” she took it a bit more aggressively than she meant when he handed it off, watching him as he took down another and squeezed the wick between his fingers. Snapping, a flame jumped to life. She stopped herself from asking him what the hell he’d just done and just nodded. “Right, you’re a witch, this makes sense,” she tried assuring herself.

“Well, that’s accurate,” he scratched at the back of his head, the candlelight contouring the muscles in his arm as he moved, and chuckled, “but warlock is a little sexier.”

That’s accurate,” she mumbled, then shook her head.

“The breaker has never not been in the basement, so I guess we just have to look. It was in my office for a week once, so let’s start there.”

The first door off the corridor was the apothecary’s chamber, and even in the dark it was identifiable by the smell alone. Spicey and a bit medical, the room woke you up when you entered it. Lorelei had only been past the open door a time or two, but never inside. With her candle, she took in the space as much as she looked for the breaker box. The walls were lined with open shelves, much like the store they’d been to, but his jars were mismatched and mostly unlabeled. She hoped he was as good at what he did as he seemed.

“So, Lore, what did you do before you came here?”

She felt herself go red at his shortening of her name, glad for the lack of light, “Oh, well, I guess you could say I’m a serial receptionist. I don’t have a big dream like you,” she touched one of the jars filled with a bright yellow seed.

“You don’t?” He had gotten down unto his knees and was peering under the exam table, “When we met you seemed kinda interested in Hagan’s.”

“The Academy?” she didn’t want to admit she’d just been jostled into staring up at the sign, “I actually went to school for a while, but it got expensive,” she sighed, running a finger over the spine of a book on curative snake bites, “Especially just taking elective after elective. I was on the road to a degree in everything and nothing.”

“That’s why you left? To sort of…find yourself?”

“Yeah, actually, I think so,” she turned toward him unsure why she was telling him this. He was already looking at her.

He looked at her earnestly, “Is it working?”

She bit her lip, “I’m not sure yet.”

There was a muffled noise from the hall and they both jerked toward the door. Lorelei ran through who it could possibly be in her head, but none of them seemed likely. Without a word, the two looked at one another and told the other to creep toward the door. Conrad eased the door open and slipped his candle out into the hall. On the stone floor they could see the shine of small puddles running from one end to the other. They were wet and misshapen but unmistakably footprints.

Lorelei leaned against the wall in the office when Conrad eased the door shut again. She started chewing on a nail, her voice at a whisper, “You know when the lights went out, I was like, okay that’s normal, but then the candles went out and that seemed kinda weird, and then our phones died, at the exact same time, and that seems extra weird. Is there something I should know?”

“So, here’s the thing,” Conrad tugged a hand through his hair, “Those are all normal things for Moonlit Shores Manor. Magic is finicky, spells overload, you get weird electrical things in the air. Any one of those things it totally legitimate.”

She looked at him eagerly to go on, “But all of them together?”

“That seems a bit more…purposeful.”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment – Monday 4/30/18

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Vacancy – 1.15

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

V 1.15

Their footfalls crackled ominously over dead leaves as they traipsed through the dark wood, Lorelei constantly shushing Grier only to find that it was actually her making all the noise. When they came to the the pond that Axel had specified, moonlight illuminated the clearing running around its shore in an delicate, silvery blue. It would have been beautiful if not so rife with impending doom. She checked once more with Grier that the moon didn’t control a werewolf’s change and he confirmed, rolling his eyes and mocking her for what he assumed her taste in fiction was.

The air was still, the pond like a black mirror reflecting the trees at its far end so that they seemed to go on forever. Then, their figures began to emerge from the forest. One, then two, then four, until seven looming shadows stood out against the tree line, staring her down. Axel was at their center, strutting toward her around the pond, an arm outstretched, “Tonight, we battle.”

Lorelei suddenly felt this was a very bad idea. “You guys don’t look like you brought any instruments.” Her voice was small as it drifted across the pond. The seven had come around the body of water to stand even with them. Though they were at least fifty paces away, at a full run–and on paws, Lorelei assumed–they’d be on them in an instant.

“Don’t worry about us,” Axel smiled, “You should only be concerned with yourself.”

Lorelei was concerned, among many other things. She felt a rush of warm, liquid courage, the nauseating nag of stage fright, and the very sudden urge to pee. But instead of addressing any of that, she held her hand out to Grier, and he dropped the microphone into it. With a nod from her, and his own heavy sigh, he pressed a button on the machine.

The tiny box projected an ethereal sound out over the pond, a tinkling of piano keys reaching out to get lost beyond the trees. There had been a great number of songs on the machine that she didn’t recognize, probably more than she did, but some music, she reckoned, was universal. Lorelei cleared her throat and brought the microphone to her mouth. From the box a strangled, stock voice cued her, “Turn around…” And she began, “Every now and then I get a little bit lonely, and you’re never comin round…”

As she continued, she heard herself as the sounds floated away from her, slightly distorted and haunting in the darkness. She accompanied the lone piano is a quavering alto, determined to look no one in the eye. She was buoyed by the addition of the bass and raised her voice a bit, “Every now and then I fall apart.”

When the percussion on the karaoke machine kicked in, she gripped the microphone sincerely with two hands. She glanced at her challengers, catching two stepping closer to her, and took one step herself toward them. She wished her hair were bigger. “Every now and then I get a little bit terrified but then I see the look in your eyes!”

The music built and she took a deep breath: this was it. “Every now and then I fall apart!” Lorelei’s voice traveled over the pond, echoing back at her from the trees, but she could barely hear it. She was focused, the words coming to her like a long forgotten memory. She could feel the lyrics erupting from her chest and she swayed with the melody.

She raised a finger and pointed squarely at Axel, “And if you only hold me tight, we’ll be holding on forever,” and his eyes went wide. She belted the words out to him as if they were bullets, “Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time!”

Lorelei threw an arm up, teetering for a moment then regaining her balance as she shout-sang. With a stomp, she shouted, “We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks!”

There was no way the entire manor could not hear her, or at least some spectral version of her voice, even as far as they were, but she didn’t care. She wanted the world to hear. And she wanted to have the foresight to have worn a white gown. “I really need you tonight!” She threw her head back and closed her eyes, screeching out a note humans could barely hear let alone make. With a deep breath she let her voice run, trill, reach up, down, over hill and dale, until finally she ran out of breath, “Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I’m only falling apart,” she panted for a second, then fell to her knees, “There’s nothing I can do, a total eclipse of the heart.”

Lorelei pawed at the pond’s shore, lifting up a handful or damp earth before her, “Once upon a time there was light in my life–” then she threw it to the side, “but now there’s only love in the dark.” Falling forward, she crumpled over the microphone, “Nothing I can say, a total eclipse of the heart.” Smashing the microphone against her lips, she whispered, “A total eclipse of the heart!”

Lorelei could hear her own breath over the speaker as she lay slumped over the microphone in the dirt. In a falsetto she whined, “Turn around bright eyes, turn around…” The music had ended, and her last shred of energy went with it. That had to have done it, she thought to herself, though she wasn’t quite sure what it was supposed to be as she peered up through strands of hair fallen free in her performance.

They were stunned into silence. The pack stared at her, mouths agape. She blinked back at them knowing she had done it. Somehow, from the depth of her soul, she’d mustered a performance to win over the pack. They wouldn’t even counter perform. She had won. A smile slowly spread across her face.

Axel grinned back, his teeth shining. The grin spread from one to another until the whole pack was a blinding set of white fangs. Lorelei, still on her knees in the dirt, sat up, “Did I win?”

Grier was quiet, and she finally glanced back at him. He looked as if he were petrified, his eyes locked on the wolves. Her guts churned, and she thought she might throw up. “I really want to take your speechlessness as a yes.”

The boy managed a tiny shake of his head, then Lorelei looked back to the pack. Something was happening. Something odd. Their figures were contorting in the moonlight, heads being thrown back, arms stretching impossibly wide. And the noises. Something between a howl and a growl and a human’s scream, but they weren’t entirely painful, almost celebratory, rapturous.

Axel growled, his voice like gravel, “Now it’s our turn.” There was a cracking like bone snapping.

Lorelei gingerly placed the microphone on the ground and began to get to her feet, her hope that they would perform dwindling, “What song are you guys going to do?”

“No song.”

Her stomach flipped again. “But that was the challenge,” she sputtered, taking a step back.

Axel laughed low then fell to his knees. The female werewolf was by his side, “We just wanted to see you make a fool of yourself before you died.”

Lorelei’s body went cold: she certainly wasn’t interested in dying. She grabbed for Grier, but the boy was frozen to the spot. “We need to run,” she was pulling at him, but he didn’t budge, “Now!”

“No,” his face fell, utterly devoid of emotion, “There’s no use. They’ll catch us. I need to just surrender.”

“No way,” she yanked at him again, the popping sounds of bone on bone echoing out around them as they changed, “Come on, let’s go!”

But Grier pulled himself away, taking a step toward the changing pack, “You should run. If I give myself up they might let you go.”

Lorelei watched him take another stunted step toward the werewolves, torn in two directions. She couldn’t physically drag him back to the manor, but everything in her screamed to stay and at least try. Standing at the edge of the pond and watching the pack writhe around on the bank ahead of them, she wished she could somehow swallow them up with the water, buy them more time, and run away.

And then, the water did just that.

Like a hand coming up from the depths, the water receded from the shore, forming into a massive wave, looming high above them all. Lorelei grabbed Grier, and as he was distracted by the sudden shadow above, she yanked him back and away from it. In an instant, the wall of water came crashing down, barely missing Grier and Lorelei, but drenching the group as they completed their transformations. The howls were swallowed up in the crashing wave and there was silence for a moment, then the heads of not-man but not-wolf creatures surfaced, spitting, gasping, gurgling, but the water did not let them escape. No, the water had encapsulated them, and was rising around them, pulling them out to the center of the pond and holding them there.

“What is the witch doing?” one of them growled.

“She’s no witch!” Axel responded with a sputter, “She’s a lorelei!”

Unsure if she really did have control over what was happening, Lorelei watched with mounting horror as the water made waves, pulling the werewolves under then allowing them up just long enough to get breath before sucking them back down. The pond churned with the force of an ocean in a hurricane, but the forest around was completely still.

Grier grabbed Lorelei’s arm, “Are you doing this?”

“I don’t think so,” she whispered, but it was then she realized the wolves didn’t know that.

When the water had calmed for a moment, still holding the creatures captive but barely afloat, she stood as tall as possible, “You thought you’d break our agreement, hu?”

The wolven-faced creature that had been Axel gasped and coughed, then sputtered, “Please, have mercy on us! We didn’t know!”

“Mercy?” she balled her fists and yelled out at them, “Why the hell would I do that?”

The water seemed to respond, jostling them around and dunking them again.

“You’re right!” a voice rose up, different from Axel’s, “We don’t deserve it!”

Others joined in, agreeing, then they began to beg between coughing and dunking. Lorelei felt a sudden panic. She hated Axel in her gut, but she felt for a moment the rest were victims, just like Grier. “Fine!” she shouted over the splashing, and she held up her hands as if to ask the water to stop, “Fine!”

The pond stagnated, but the werewolves appeared to still be trapped amongst the waters.

“But this is a win!” she pointed out at them, “I win, Grier is mine, and your pack has no jurisdiction here, all right?”

“Yes!” they were shouting in unison.

“I know I can’t really take your word for it,” she hesitated, and the pond started to rock them, gently, but fear grew on their faces instantly, “But if any of you ever return, the last thing you’ll ever see is–” she glanced at Grier, “are there eels in there?”

He raised his shoulders, his face frozen in awe.

“The last thing you’ll ever see is whatever lives at the bottom of this pond!”

There were watery agreements from the pack, and she nodded, “All right then.”

As if she were in control of the water, at her word it lifted the pack out and dumped them on the bank with a splat. Sopping and out of breath, they tried to raise themselves up, falling back all over one another. Looking up at her through soaked fur, they had a new fear in their eyes. Resigned, they began to back off toward the treeline.

Axel looked as though he wanted to say something, but the claw-link hands of one of his companions were on him, pulling him back, and he turned with the group, fleeing.

“How?” Grier’s voice was low as he stared at Lorelei.

She shrugged, “Pond’s enchanted or something, right?” It seemed obvious to her. He shrugged back, his eyes locked on the spot the pack had disappeared into. “Well, probably,” Lorelei remarked more to herself than anything, then turned back toward the path they’d taken to get there.

A small body lay on the ground just at the forest’s edge. It almost glowed, pale in the moonlight that reached there. Cautiously, they began toward it, but when Lorelei recognized the form, she broke into a sprint.

Hotaru was limp as Lorelei pulled her onto her lap. She tapped at her face and called her name, Grier dropping down at her side, the pack forgotten. The girl’s eyes fluttered open.

“What happened? Are you okay? How did you get out here?” Lorelei asked questions with rapid fire, and the girl just blinked back. “We need to get her back. Now.”

There was no time to discuss their victory as they carried her back to the manor and brought her inside to the sitting room, empty save for the sleeping man in the rocker by the fire who Lorelei expected wouldn’t tell a soul what was going on anyway. They placed her on the couch, but she’d stayed conscious for the trip and was breathing normally again.

“Should I get Conrad?” Grier was already moving for the door.

“No!” Hotaru sat up, then slumped back down. “No, no,” she placed a hand on her forehead and closed her eyes, “I will be all right, I just need to rest.”

“Was that…was that you in the woods?” Lorelei knelt down before her on the floor, remember the trick Hotaru had showed her with the bowl of water.

“Don’t be stupid,” Grier rolled his eyes.

But Hotaru’s guilty face told them both the truth without words.

“No way,” his hands fell at his sides.

“I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she spoke quietly and deliberately, “but I had to do something; you would have been killed.”

“Hotaru,” Lorelei grabbed her hand and scream-whispered, “You are amazing! You were eavesdropping on us, hu?”

The girl smiled weakly, “Accident.”

“I can’t believe it,” Grier flopped down onto the couch next to her feet, “Well, thanks. You really saved our skins.”

Her face went pink, “I just want to go to bed.”

They helped her to her room and saw to her getting under the covers where she instantly fell asleep. Back in the hall, Lorelei yawned and Grier followed suit. “Well, I’m glad you’re going to get to stay. And I’m extra glad I’m not dead. Pretty successful night, hu?”

Grier stood in the hallway, glancing at Hotaru’s closed door, then to Lorelei. His eyes were glassy, and his face was red. Then, in a move that neither of them really expected, he threw his arms around her and buried his face into her shoulder. For a moment Lorelei didn’t move, afraid it was a trick, then she relented and hugged him back. He squeezed her harder then, and she chuckled, “Well, I didn’t know my singing was that good.”

He pulled back from her and wiped at his face. He may have been crying, but neither of them would ever say. “Oh no, that was terrible.”

“Terrible?” she frowned, “Really?”

“Spectacularly bad. Like, I’m impressed at how bad it was.”

“All right, all right!” she hissed trying to stifle her laughter.

“The absolute worst,” he turned and went for his door, “Humans, they just can’t carry a tune to save their lives.” Then, offering her a quick smile, he slipped into his room and shut the door.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.14

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

Vacancy1.14

“He already has one.”

Axel blinked slowly, setting his dark eyes on her, “What was that, sweetheart?”

“A family. Grier already has us. He doesn’t need you.” Lorelei spat the words out, disgusted that the man who’d disfigured Grier would try and convince him that was what family did.

The werewolf took a step toward the girl, looking down his long nose at her, “Are you saying he is already committed to a pack?”

“Yeah,” she nodded vigorously, cooly walking to where Grier stood a few paces from the men and hoping Axel was dumb enough to believe it, “he is!”

“And who has authority over this pack?”

Grier reached out to grab her, but she felt his hand a moment too late. She was angry, and the words came before any other senses could register. “I do.”

Axel smiled, looking over at the others in his own pack. They began to snicker until it built to full on laughter, shoulders shaking. Axel threw back his head and his voice crescendoed into a howl. The others joined in, sending their cries up into the sky, and the sound of other voices echoed back from deep in the forest.

Lorelei took a step closer to Grier, dropping her voice to a whisper, “What the hell is happening?”

“You, uh, just declared yourself the alpha,” he was wide eyed, staring intently at Axel as he howled, “to another alpha.”

“What?” Lorelei looked from one werewolf to another, “What does that even mean?”

Axel dropped his head back down and strode right up to Lorelei, leaning down so his nose was inches from her own. The others fell silent. “I challenge you to luno agon.”

The others threw their heads back once more and screamed into the sky, “Luno agon!”

Lorelei tried to not look away, but his breath was appalling and she grimaced. She had no idea what the words meant, but didn’t feel very confident that they were anything good.

“Are you not brave enough?” Axel growled, snapping his jaw at her, and she recoiled.

“She is not brave!” the woman shouted, and other voices from the forest echoed back.

“Hey!” Lorelei could feel her knees trembling, but she was still standing there, wasn’t she? “I just don’t know what that means.”

The tallest werewolf threw back his head, “She doesn’t know what that–” then stopped abruptly, looking to Axel who shook his head.

Axel stood straight and looked her up and down. “A duel,” he was almost giddy, “For the boy.”

Lorelei immediately felt slimy, “You can’t just, like, win people.”

“You claim the boy belongs to you!” Axel was suddenly furious.

“Yes, yes okay!” she threw up her hands, “Fine. For the boy.”

He composed himself with a long breath, “We will duel. Now, what is the challenge?”

“You’re asking me?”

“Yes,” he was visibly agitated, rolling his eyes, “Lupo agon. The challengee sets the specifics of the duel. Typically we fight to the death, we’re werewolves, but maybe your culture is different. What are you anyway?”

“Uh, I’m a lorelei,” she lore-lied.

“A lorelei?” Axel snickered, “What are you going to do? Sing me to death?” His laughed morphed into a full bellied guffaw, and the others were quick to follow suit.

She glanced to Grier who was was pale-skinned and wide-eyed, his mouth hanging open. He would be no help. She turned back to Axel, “Yeah. Yeah, I am. I challenge you to a sing off, okay? ‘Devil Went Down To Georgia’ style.”

The werewolf’s laughter died off, and Axel held his stomach as he looked down at her, wiping away a tear,  “This can’t–you can’t–can she do that?”

Bewildered, the pack looked at one another, then the woman crossed her arms and smiled, “She can declare lupo agon in whatever way she likes.”

“But that can’t–”

“In whatever way she likes!” the woman scowled, and Axel huffed.

“Fine! Tonight, at midnight, by the pond.”

“Fine!” she shouted back, crossing her arms and stomping a foot.

“Fine!” Axel turned on his heel and began out into the woods, the others at his feet. She watched them go, her heart thumping so loudly it was banging against her ears, but she didn’t dare move until they were out of sight.

Finally, Grier cleared his throat, “So, that just happened.”

“Yup.”

“Can you, like, even sing?”

Lorelei’s arms fell to her sides and she hung her head, “Not at all.”

***

“I need more alcohol.” Lorelei had finished off half of a bottle of wine, but she wasn’t feeling very tipsy.

“How will that help?” Across the table from her in the empty kitchen, Grier was fidgeting with the icing on a cupcake that Hotaru had shyly given him before heading off to bed. It was close to midnight and the day had gone by too quickly. Now he was looking much younger than he’d ever seemed with chocolate frosting on his finger that he couldn’t bare eating.

“I did karaoke once when I was very drunk. From what I remember, I was pretty good, so that’s our best bet.” She went to stand and wobbled a bit, “Oh, hey, did you see that? I think we’re getting there.”

“Oh, geez,” Grier slapped his forehead, but Lorelei ignored him, grabbing a bottle of yellow-colored liquid from one of the wine coolers.

She made her way back to her seat and worked the cork out, “So, why do they want you so badly anyway? You clearly don’t want to be in their cult.”

Grier sighed, stretching his arms across the table, “Most people don’t survive the curse, but I was one of the lucky few.”

“Slim pickens,” Lorelei poured herself some of the liquid, took a drink, and instantly regretted it, “Ew!” She pushed the bottle away.

“Lightweight,” Grier grinned, the first time he’d smiled all day, “but what can you expect from a human.”

Lorelei crossed her arms, tipping back then quickly steadying herself, “You said Axel, a werewolf, did this to you,” she motioned to her own face, “So why do you hate humans so much? I mean, clearly you used to be one.”

Grier was quiet a moment. He opened his mouth a couple times, then closed it again, but Lorelei was patient. She could wait him out. Finally, the boy looked down at his lap and began. “Axel was my mom’s boyfriend. She didn’t know what he was, not at first, she just thought he was an alcoholic, and that was fine with her. He got worse as time went on, he’d leave, he’d come back, he’d bring friends.” The boy never looked up at her, his voice low. “The older I got, the more I hated him, and when I let him know, he took his anger out on me. I thought my mom wouldn’t let that happen but she seemed, I don’t know, relieved?” he scratched behind an ear, “Like glad it wasn’t her anymore. Then we found out what he was and instead of running away it just made her want to be with him more. It was so stupid,” he slammed his fist down on the table, “So human.”

Lorelei watched him grit his teeth as he stared at his fist, but didn’t speak: there wasn’t anything she could say.

“After he scarred me, he said he’d be back, if I survived, and left us, but he didn’t come back. I thought things might be okay after that, but I was wrong. Mom seemed to just hate me, like she looked at me like I was him, and she said she knew what I’d become. A monster.” His voice cracked, then he shook his head, “When I figured out I could change, I was able to hide it, but I couldn’t hide my face. The kids I went to school with called me names, and no one understood or believed me. Everyone was so cruel all the time, even my own mother.”

Lorelei felt the urge to hug him, but thought better of it as he was explaining to her why he hated the very thing she was. “So, you left?” she whispered.

“Yeah,” he nodded, “A few years ago. I tried making it on my own, but it’s hard. Eventually I found this place, or, well, it found me kinda, and I’ve been here since. I didn’t think Axel would ever come for me. Or, at least, he wouldn’t be able to find me. I hoped he would forget about me, but I’ve learned a lot about werewolves since then, and there aren’t many of us. He’s the kinda guy who thinks there should be more. And he thinks he should be in charge of them.”

“Well,” Lorelei slapped her hand down harder than she meant to, “he’s not in charge of you, buddy!” She wasn’t quite sure where her choice of words had come from and hiccuped.

“You know you don’t have to do this,” he eyed her nervously, “You shouldn’t do this.”

“Oh, you mean I don’t have to challenge a pack of carnivorous wolf-men for your very soul?” she chuckled, “Yeah, I know.”

“Seriously,” his frown was deep, “I mean, Axel’s dumb, but you don’t seem that stupid. For a human.”

“The whole thing is stupid,” Lorelei waved at him, “You can’t own somebody. If they need this little show, though, to prove that, then so be it. You got the thing?”

“Oh, yeah,” he reached down and lifted up a portable speaker box with a microphone, “We haven’t used it in a while, but it still works.”

“All right, let’s go win us a lupin aragog!”

Lupo agon.”

She popped up from her chair and nearly fell over, but caught herself at the last minute, “Whatever!”

 

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Vacancy – 1.13

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

vacancy1.13

Lorelei immediately didn’t like the look of them. When they let the double doors slam behind them, the largest of the three strut up the front desk, a tattoo on his neck and eyes that wandered everywhere but to her face.

“Hello, sweetheart.” With that, she knew the next twenty four hours would have been a challenge had Ziah been there, but without her it was bound to be exponentially worse. “Nice place ya got here.” He placed his elbows on the desk, bringing his face far too close to her own.

Lorelei smiled as broadly as she could and stepped back, “What can I do for you today, sir?”

“Oh, lots,” he winked at her, and she managed to keep from hacking on him. A set of scars ran along his temple and up onto his head where they prevented hair from growing in two long lines, parting the stringy mane he had bound at the nape of his neck. Seeing the markings on his neck more clearly, Lorelei could just make out the word “Feral” in an overly styled font scrawled above an animalistic skull. The other man who had come in with him, tall but rail thin and wearing an open vest with nothing underneath, was poking his shaved head through to the dining room, and their third companion, a woman wearing leather and leopard print, leaned against the front door’s frame, her gum chewing audible from across the room. “We’re looking for someone and hear tell that he’s on the, uh, prem-i-ses.” He smirked and drew the word out as if impressed with himself for using it.

“Oh?” Lorelei’s smile faltered, “Well, I can’t give you any information on our guests, but if they–”

“Not a guest. A kid. Dark hair, about yea tall. Hard to miss him what with the big ole scar over his eye,” the man pointed to his own then winked at her again, “Gave him that myself.”

Struck deep in her gut with worry, Lorelei flicked her eyes to the front door, hoping Grier would not come through, though he was due back any moment. The man glanced over his shoulder, and she grimaced at her own tell. Finally she frowned, “I’m not aware of anyone by that description, and I’m disinclined to give you information about the rest of us here at Moonlit Shores Manor.” She stared stony-faced at the man, daring him to say anything else.

“Good morning to you!” Seamus’s cheery voice broke into the room as he strode in from the sitting room. Despite his lime green suspenders, layered over a sky blue dress shirt and pin-covered bowler, the sight of him didn’t break the stare between Lorelei and the stranger. He paused a moment, then sidled up next to Lorelei at the counter. “Good sir!” he extended a hand, “Welcome to Moonlit Shores Manor! Are you looking to book a few rooms? Or perhaps just one? No judgement here!”

The man gave Seamus’s hand and half-hearted glance, then smirked at Lorelei, “Not today, but maybe we’ll be back.”

He slinked out of the manor, the woman following, and the tall man bringing up the rear, though he reached out just as the door closed and grabbed the coat rack so that it would crash to the ground in their wake. Staring after them, Seamus rubbed a hand through his fiery beard, “Things seemed a bit tense there, lass.”

“No, no,” she told him, hopping from behind the counter and fixing the rack, “They were just, uh, trying to sell us something.”

“A bit rough for salesmen,” Seamus glanced back at the door then shrugged, “But we’ve not got time for that, do we? The missus and I are off for a short holiday.”

“You are?” Ziah hadn’t mentioned this.

“She’s got some business in Dublin, of all places, and I never miss a chance to visit home,” he laid a finger alongside his own nose. “You’ll be fine of course, if Ziah’s leaving you on your own no reason for us to think otherwise!”

She watched after him as he strode out of the room. Of course they were leaving. Of course. She turned back to the closed entrance and glanced out the tall window lining the side of the door. They were nowhere in sight, and she willed it to stay that way.

“Hey.”

Lorelei spun around, her heart leaping into her throat as Grier emerged from the office behind the counter. “You scared me!” she scolded him, slapping her hand on her chest, “Were you in there the whole time?”

“Yeah,” he tiptoed out from behind the counter and up to the window on the door’s opposite side. When he was satisfied they were no longer around, he turned to her, “You didn’t say anything about me to them.”

She nodded, “Duh.” Grier had been less antagonistic, but still standoffish since the seance. He liked to pretend he didn’t hear her when she asked him questions, at least not the first time. 

“Or to Seamus.”

“It’s not really his business, I guess,” she shrugged. It had seemed the right thing to do at the time, though now she was having second thoughts.

Grier snorted and crossed his arms, “Thanks.”

She eyed him a minute then went back to the counter, “Did you really think I would just, like, give you up? Like three scary-looking, super rude people come in looking for you, and I’d just throw you to the wolves?”

Grier pouted, “I don’t know, I mean, maybe? You’ll probably get another chance, though: they’ll be back,” he glanced out the window again, “Tonight.”

“Tonight?” Lorelei dropped her head into her hands and her elbows onto the counter, “They can’t just like be chill til Ziah comes back?”

Grier paced from the dining room entrance to the sitting room and back again. She watched him run his hands through his curly mop, his eyes trailing the floor. Then he stopped. “Lorelei,” he addressed her using her name for the first time, “I think I’m in trouble.”

***

“Werewolves?” Lorelei was trying to keep pace with Grier as he bound through the woods, suddenly lithe and fast. “I thought you were just like a shapeshifter or a furry or something.”

He paused a moment to glare at her, then continued on, “I’m not one fully, not yet, but they are.”

“Well, if they’re out here in the woods wouldn’t we be safer back in the manor?”

Grier had gone back to his duties after they chatted briefly about “some bad guys” who were out to get him, but when Lorelei saw him trying to slink away after lunch into the wooded area behind the manor but far from the path leading to the station, she knew she had to follow. That’s when he’d dropped the “w” word.

You certainly would be,” he snapped back.

“So what do they really want with you then?”

Grier hopped up onto a fallen log and paused, sniffing at the air, “They want to initiate me into their pack. If I’m in the pack before my first full transformation, I’ll be bound to them for the rest of my life, though no telling how long that will be with what they get up to.”

“I thought they were here to hurt you,” she tried to climb up behind him, but he was over on the other side of the log before she could get footing, “They just want you to join their club?”

“Not a club!” She saw him cut the air with his hand as she scrambled over the tree. “More like a gang.”

With the forest floor leveling out, she was able to catch up to him, “And you don’t want to join?”

“You see this?” he rounded on her, suddenly face to face. Grier was pointing at his white eye, the scarred skin cutting down his forehead and cheek a shining silver. “Axel did this to me when I was nine. So no, I don’t want to be part of a club that does this to anyone, especially not little kids.”

He turned and raced off again through the woods, and she tried to follow, “Grier, wait!” His figure jumped over another log and around a cluster of trees, and when she got there, she lost sight of him. She called out his name again, but there was no answer.

It was midday, but the forest was dark. She turned quickly, but everything looked the same in green and black shadows. The path she’d seen earlier was no longer underfoot, and when she stopped to listen for the sound of his traipsing through the fallen leaves, she heard nothing, not even the sounds of birds. “You little shit,” she grit her teeth and turned again.

“Sweetheart!” Axel loomed over her, and her heart dropped into her gut. His teeth were shining in a half smile, heavy brows coming down over dark eyes.

“Oh,” she smiled sweetly, mimicking what she had offered him insincerely before, “Hello there.”

“Fancy seeing you out here,” he took a step toward her and she matched him, stepping back.

“Ah, yeah, well, what’s…up?”

He narrowed his eyes, studying her “Not much, and you?”

“Just going for a walk out in the woods…all alone,” Lorelei clasped her hands behind her back and took another step away from him. Good, she thought, he was at least a bit dumb. “Nice day, hu?”

“Quite. I, uh,” Axel cleared his throat, “I’m still looking for our little friend.”

“Not having any luck?” she cocked her head, “Well, that’s too bad. I’ll keep an eye out!” Lorelei turned to flee, but was met with the bare chest and visible ribs of the skinny, tall man from the lobby. He pushed her backward and she tripped, but caught herself before she fell to the ground. She was getting better at that. “Listen, you’re trespassing, all right?” she said, unsure if it was true and looking from one to the other as they began to close in on her, “It’ll be easier for all of us if you guys just head home.” The waver in her voice was thoroughly unconvincing.

“You could just give him up, you know,” Axel growled, “We’d consider sparing you if you did.”

The woman emerged from the trees, more threatening up close with dark lips highlighting how much she was enjoying this. Lorelei held her ground, balling her fists, “I already told you everything.” Somewhere out in the woods she heard a twig snap and wondered if there were more of them and if they would take chase if she ran. She was no good to them if no one knew she was missing, but they were probably too dumb to realize that.

“Here I am.” Grier’s voice came from above. He was crouching on a tree limb, glowering down at them.

“Oh, wow,” Lorelei glared at him, “Look at that, a boy I’ve never once seen before with my own eyes.”

He dropped down, a shocking distance, but landed with ease to stand opposite the group. “What do you want, Axel?”

“It’s time,” the man said to him, “You’ll be changing soon. Can’t you hear the call? Feel the moon?”

“You don’t know that,” his fists were balled at his sides, “It might never happen.”

“It will happen, Grier, and you’ll need us when it does.” The man’s lip turned up. The words were almost kind, but Lorelei could feel a venom to them. “When you change, you’ll need a family.”

Grier was quiet, his shoulders slumping in slightly. He scrunched his face up, his eyes glossing over, and Lorelei got nervous. Nervous enough to do something stupid.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.12

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

v 1.12 photo

“The bank,” Conrad pointed to the most average-looking building on Centaurea Street in Bexley. Squat and with a white brick facade, it stood atop a foundation taller than those around it, four pillars at the top of the marble stairs leading to its entrance. It felt like any bank from her own world, but it leaned slightly to the left.

The line inside also gave her a sense of familiarity, but one that wasn’t necessarily comforting. They took their place at its end, and Conrad turned to her, “So, tell me about your family.”

His voice had been low, but she looked around nervously anyway. The woman ahead of them had in earbuds as well as a tail, though that was inconsequential, and the fairies in front of her were bickering. At the head of the line, a father was trying to distract his three daughters with bubbles from the end of his pipe that didn’t seem to pop no matter how hard the children tried.

“My family?” she repeated.

“Well, you know about mine, the estrangement, death, boo hoo. And you’ve been subjected to Arista and Seamus. It’s only fair.”

Lorelei winced. She was trapped. “Well, uh, yeah, I’ve got my mom, and that’s about it.”

The father at the head of the line was called up to the window, and they all stepped forward.

“No siblings? Cousins?”

“Oh, three cousins, but they live a couple states away. I don’t know them very well. My mom doesn’t get along with her sister. They had a weird childhood,” she shrugged, “That’s all.”

“Oh, so how did you find out?”

She stared at him blankly. “That they don’t like each other? It’s pretty obvious when they’re in the same room together. You should have seen three Christmases ago.”

“No, no,” he shook his head, “How did you find out about you,” he grit his teeth and said under his breath, “The c word.”

“Excuse me?” she took a step back.

“Being a changeling,” he urged her on.

She deflated and laughed a little at herself as the fairies were called up to the next window, “Oh! That! Well, I uh, just, was…informed.”

“By?”

“Letter?” she asked more than told.

“Who sent that in a letter?”

The woman before them pulled out her earbuds as she made her way to the counter, and they stepped up to the front of the line as someone else joined behind them. It moved quickly, but not quick enough for Lorelei’s liking.

“Well, there was also this kinda giant, in a trenchcoat. He had a big bushy beard and, um, it was my birthday.” Conrad was watching her intently as the lies came out of her mouth. Well, they weren’t totally lies; it had happened to someone, and just because it was fiction didn’t mean it wasn’t true. “And it was when we were on vacation at a lake, and, um–”

“Next, please!”

Lorelei turned on her heel at the sharp voice and made her way to the counter with a purpose, chiefly being to put an end to that conversation, but stopped short about a foot from the window. Atop the counter sat a white rabbit up on its haunches with a miniature pair of cat-eyed glasses perched on its snout. Lorelei glanced right and left at the other windows where it appeared humans were working with customers, and she worried she’d misheard.

“Yes, next, come on up,” the rabbit waved a paw at her and thumped its back foot.

“Uh, hi,” Lorelei swallowed hard and fished around in her own pocket, “I have this.” She pulled out the paper and offered it to the creature.

The rabbit looked at it, then at her, then back at the page. With a tiny paw, she took it and carefully unfolded the note, then pushed her glasses up further over her ever-bobbing nose. “Yes,” she said quietly to herself, then with a single hop to the back edge of the counter, leaned over and revealed a red magnifying glass from a drawer. Examining the number at its top carefully, the rabbit made all sorts of chittering noises, then finally put down the glass, “Paw, please.”

She had her own arm outstretched toward the girl, and after a moment, Lorelei extended her hand up onto the counter and gently placed it over the rabbit’s soft paw. The rabbit placed the note back in Lorelei’s hand and examined it again, “Well, it seems to be in order. What would you like to do?”

After Lorelei stared at her dumbly, Conrad leaned over, “Remove the contents, please.”

“Very well.” The rabbit pressed a button on the counter beside her, “I need a  guardsman.”

A moment later, a figure came from the rooms behind where the tellers stood. Sheathed in metal from head to toe, he was like a suit of armour, but walked independently. The guardsman carried a halberd, a flag of lilac and green stripes attached, and wore a green plume that sprouted from the top of his helmet, oddly organic against the rigidity of his suit. The rabbit passed the paper to the guardsman, and he bent over fully to stare at the note, then snapped his attention back to them.

“Robin will escort you,” the rabbit hopped the the counter’s end and swung open a gate for them to pass through.

They followed the walking armour as it announced its way across the marble floors. They were taken down a corridor and ended at a vault. The guardsman picked up his halberd and flipped it horizontal, and they jumped away as it sliced through the air between them. The armour inserted the end into the vault’s lock and twisted, the door giving way.

The inside of the vault’s walls and floor were lined in a deep red velvet, and the room was flooded with light. It was dizzying to barely be able to see where floor and wall met, and they focused on the counter-height table in its center. The guardsman closed them in and secured the door. If he was mechanical, she thought, she hoped he wouldn’t run out of power inside.

There was another door, which the guardsman told them to stay back from, not with words, but with the stiff sweeping motion of his hand. Lorelei and Conrad stood at the far end of the table, and the armour made similar movements, let himself in, and a few agonizingly silent moments later, emerged with a box. He locked the door again, placed the box on the table, and marched to a corner, turning stiff as stone.

Unsure if he was truly alive, Lorelei leaned over to Conrad, “Is it…saying it’s okay to open the box?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“You think so?” she groaned, “He’s got a really sharp thing in his hands, you know.”

He could only shrug, “I’ve never done this before.”

Lorelei bit her lip and reached out for the box. It was silver and unadorned, and though she tried to remind herself of Ziah’s words it could just be an old mismatched sock she felt a jolt of excitement as she lifted the lid. The box was lined in the same deep red as the room and completely empty save for a bronze circle in its center. She picked it up, much heavier than she expected, and ran a finger over the animal etched into it, round-bodied and big-eyed, holding up what appeared to be a shield. “What is this?” she asked, turning to Conrad, “Is it a chipmunk?”

He had busied himself staring at his shoes but was quick to look when she asked. He gasped and in a swift movement almost grabbed it from her, then stopped. “May I?”

“Of course,” she placed it in his hand and he flipped it over.

On the back, a long, thin metal pin was attached. Conrad held it close to his face, “It can’t be.”

She was afraid to ask, so she only stared at him.

“A brooch,” he flipped it over again, “And this symbol, I recognize it, but I’ve only seen it one place before,” Conrad stared at the brooch another moment, then plunked it back into her hand, “In my father’s casket.”

Lorelei froze. He’d just told her about his family’s passing, but this made it seem much more real.

“No,” she tried to push it back into his hands, “You should keep this if it was your father’s.”

“No, no,” he pulled away, “My father had a ring with that same chipmunk, and I saw it buried with him. And anyway, this is yours. Ms. Pennycress gave it to you. I’m just surprised. I never saw that symbol anywhere else, but,” he stared at it a moment longer then looked away, “I’m certain that’s it.”

After a few more awkward moments of silence, Lorelei let the guardsman know they were finished. They were led out and left the bank, crossing the street to the park.

“You said your father was in a secret society?” Lorelei finally ventured when she could see the arches again.

“Well,” he laughed, “I did, didn’t I?”

“Does this have anything to do with that?” she patted her pocket where she’d placed the brooch.

He shrugged, “No idea. I never wanted to be inducted. I wanted a different path, and I guess I got that.”

When they went back through the portal to the station, Lorelei felt the shiver more intensely than she had before, then when they passed back into the woods, she felt sick to her stomach, “You weren’t kidding about the Warlock General,” she told him, though she wasn’t entirely sure she felt ill because of the arches and their mysterious transportation powers.

He took her arm gently and stopped her before they mounted his bike, “Are you all right?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” she blushed then stood up straight, reminding herself he was, after all, a doctor, “Just nauseous.”

Back at the manor, Conrad had wished her good night and headed for the basement, and Lorelei found herself alone at the front desk, night having fallen and most parties already in bed. She pulled out the brooch, still wanting to give it to Conrad, but he didn’t seem keen on having it.

An idea struck her, and she slipped into the newly organized office, immediately finding the file she needed with Ms. Pennycress’s name. Unlike the others, she did not have a telephone number or email address, only a mailing address in England. With her travels, Lorelei couldn’t know when she would again be there, but it was her only shot. On Moonlit Shores Manor stationary, she drafted up a quick letter to the woman, thanking her for the gift and inquiring more about it, being sure not to specify anything about Conrad or his family. She slid the sealed letter into the outgoing mail bin between two bills and went to the staircase. Before heading up, she turned back to the office, unsure if Samuel’s presence was there or not. “Don’t mention this to anyone,” she said under her breath for good measure and went to bed.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

Vacancy – 1.10

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

Vacancy 1.10 photoLorelei realized she had not yet been in the basement of Moonlit Shores Manor, and traversing that barrier down a creaking staircase at three in the morning didn’t seem like the most welcoming time to do so. Candles in their holders along the walls cast Hotaru’s and her own long, black shadows ahead of them as if they followed a set of robed figures. The darkness changed as they descended, more complete and quiet, and she could feel the ground rising up around her.

As they came to the narrow landing at the staircase’s end, a soft, violet glow met them, accompanied with a briney, wet scent like that of ocean air. Illuminated by splashes of blue, purple, and green luminescence crawling over rocks and sprouting from the midst of leafy foliage, Lorelei could see that the walls in the space they’d come into were cut from natural stone arching up above them to form a craggy ceiling. From the ceiling, stalactites hung, shimmering like icicles in the luminescence, and some even met the rocky places that grew up out of the ground, though she soon realized it was not an earthen floor, but water.

“Is the manor built over a pool?” Lorelei whispered, though her voice echoed into the cavernous chamber. Taking a step forward, she felt uneven planks below foot.

“I would call it more like a salty lake,” Hotaru told her offhandedly, “But you can swim in it if you’re brave enough.”

Lorelei knelt at the edge of the boardwalk where the water gently lapped at the planks. From the blackness below, she saw a pale orb rising up to the surface. She leaned a bit closer then, in the darkest depth that she could perceive, noted two eyes staring back at her own. She let out a squeak and jumped back, colliding with Hotaru. Water sprayed up at them, then there was a splash somewhere at the farthest end of the space, followed by deep, feminine laughter echoing off all of the walls.

“This way,” Hotaru giggled, gesturing for her to follow around the lake on the boarded path. Lorelei kept her eyes glued to the black waves, but saw no other movement. They came to an archway in the stone and found themselves traveling down a more traditional basement corridor, with block walls painted a soft grey and more sconces holding candles. Ahead, one of the many doors opened, and a tall shadow staggered into the hall. Lorelei stopped, nerves on edge, but the candles illuminated Conrad’s unshaven face. With sleep in his eyes, he yawned with a wave, “Morning, ladies.”

“Shut the door!” a familiar, annoyed voice shouted from deeper in the room.

He took his time reaching for the handle and gently pulled it to, avoiding both girls’ amused looks then joined them on their trek. Down the corridor and around the corner, they came to yet another set of stairs. Lorelei’s heart pounded a little harder as they descended, and she reached out a hand to steady herself as there was no railing. The wall was rough here and gritty as if the stairwell had been carved out of the earth. Lorelei had never been a fan of tight spaces, but the cool stone on her hands made her feel something different, and when she took a deep breath, she thought she could feel the manor breathe with her.

At the base of the stairs, they reached their destination, a room glowing orange where Ziah waited, tapping her foot. Grier was already sitting at a round table in the room’s center, leering at the door, his eyes locking onto Lorelei when she entered. Seamus and Ren conversed in a corner, the elf nodding solemnly at Seamus’s big, articulate motions with his hands. The space was warm, a few degrees beyond cozy, Lorelei reckoned, and there was a humming coming from the walls.

“That’s all of us,” Ziah turned to the only figure Lorelei didn’t recognize.

Shadowed against the furnace, a massive metal chamber encrusted in orange rust, a fire glowing from behind its mouth-like grate, a woman’s figure stood. She threw her hands into the air, spinning to face them and tilting her head to the ceiling. “I feel it!” her exclamation made each of them jump, “This place,” her accent was thick and southern, and Lorelei took a quick peek at her feet to check for cowboy boots, “it’s brimmin with life!” Point-toe, red-soled, nude pumps. Lorelei cocked her head.

“Yes,” Ziah spoke through grit teeth, “You said. Please, can we get started?”

“Started?” the woman snapped her head to stare at Ziah, “Darlin, there is no start, no beginnin, to eternity. Whether we cross the veil or not, the spirits are here.” She wore a ruby lip and cat-eyed, purple shadow, with hair, bleached blonde, surrounding her head in a perfectly round helmet. Lorelei said a silent prayer for the ozone then realized she’d done that before.

“I know her,” she whispered, sidling up to Ziah, “from TV.”

“Betsy Jo LaReaux,” the woman crossed her arms and popped out a hip, mimicking the pose Lorelei had seen in the opening montage of her show, “Clairvoyant to the Stars. You musta spent some time out there amongst my kind,” she winked at Lorelei, “The Charmed don’t like it, but simple human folk like me gotta earn a livin, and the spirits tell me everythang. Every. Thang.”

Lorelei gulped; at least the spirits hadn’t spoken of her secret yet.

“Betsy Jo can walk and work in both worlds. She’s exceedingly rare: a human with a charmed gift,” Ziah eyed Lorelei as if she were contemplating a new thought, then shook her head, “She’s the best, from what I understand, and she’s visited here before as a guest.”

“And I been itchin to come back,” she rubbed her hands together and glanced around the room, “Let’s all take a seat, shall we?”

Lorelei found herself between Hotaru and Conrad as they filled in around the table, Betsy Jo directly across from her. Their positions faintly resembled what she’d seen of seances on the couple episodes of Clairvoyant to the Stars she’d allowed to play in the background while doing other tasks, but the glitz was missing. Instead of the dark cloth draped over the table, it was bare wood, older and covered in knicks and scratches. There were no candles in varying sizes melting all over one another lining the walls, no purple and gold crystals reflecting the candle light, no massive crystal ball in the table’s center. But Betsy Jo was dramatic enough.

The woman threw her head back and her arms up, addressing the ceiling, “Spirits of Moonlit Shores Manor, hear my request. I beseech you, oh spirits, to assemble here this night, to wrap us in your protective light, and to present to us the truth we seek.”

Lorelei felt her stomach flutter. She always thought Clairvoyant to the Stars was a hoax, and yet Ziah had called her up to solve a very real problem. She glanced at the others around the table. Grier was still glaring at Lorelei from under a heavy, furrowed brow, Ziah and Hotaru beside him, both looking at Betsy Jo with a quiet suspicion. To Betsy Jo’s left sat Seamus, eyes twinkling as he apparently surveyed everyone as well, giving Lorelei a nod when their eyes met. Ren stared straight ahead at nothing in particular. Conrad, beside her, returned her look when she glanced at him, raising an eyebrow and gesturing toward the woman. I can’t believe it either, she told him, but only in her mind.

“By golly!” Betsy Jo exclaimed, slamming her hands against the table. She popped her eyes onto Ziah and huffed, “This place is fuller than a tick on a coonhound!”

“Well, many have lived–and I guess died–here over the last four hundred or so years.”

“And they come back,” she put a finger to her mouth in thought, “Even when they pass far away. This place calls to em. You’ve got to let me shoot here, for my charmed show!”

“Let’s see how this goes first, hm?”

Betsy Jo huffed, then sat back, “Alright, alright. Come on now,” she laid her palms up on the table and wiggled her fingers, “Ya’ll are gonna need to help, as I predicted.” Seamus immediately grabbed her hand, but she had to reach out and take Grier’s. When the rest did not rush to comply, she gestured with the hands she already held, nearly yanking Grier from his seat, “All ya’ll now!”

Lorelei looked to Conrad beside her hesitantly. He gave her half a grin and offered up his hand. She sat hers on top carefully then clasped down when she felt Hotaru picked up her other hand. When Ziah finally made reluctant contact with Grier, a spark flew through the group, zapping each in a wave as it traveled from Betsy Jo and back to her again. They were connected. “Now,” she gazed out over the table, “Do not let go.”

Their guide tipped her head back once more, but this time when she spoke, it was quiet, half in whispers, half inaudible. Gentle hisses filled up the room, riding on the hum of the furnace, until her one voice sounded as if it were many, layered on top of one another and coming from every corner. The others could hear it too, Lorelei confirmed, when they swiveled their heads to peer into the shadows at the edges of the room, but they followed Betsy Jo’s instruction, and she felt both Conrad and Hotaru’s hands tighten on her own.

Words began to form from the whispered sounds, each a fragment of something more, a “kitchen” or “hello” or “statue” rising up out of the sea of whispers each in its own unique voice none of which matched Betsy Jo’s, then fading back in. A chill ran up Lorelei’s spine despite the heat in the room, and a voice sounded just next to her ear, “It wasn’t me!” She jumped, but Conrad was holding fast and they did not break the circle.

As the voices became louder, there was a tinge of anger, blame perhaps, as they answered one another. Pieces of conversations floated around them as if the speakers were passing by. Lorelei thought she caught sight of a figure walking behind Grier, but when she turned to see it fully, it was not there. Another shadow flitted from the corner of her eye near Ren’s shoulder, and when she swiveled to catch it, there was again nothing, but Ren appeared paler, if possible, his eyes locked on the table, wide and searching.

The voices crescendoed suddenly, unmistakable now, loud and shouting. The bodies around the table all leaned forward, closer together, grips tightening, breaths held. Even Grier had lost the ire in his eyes and was panicked. Then Betsy Jo’s head snapped forward, her hair unmoving in its perfect halo, and her eyes fixed on a place just above Lorelei’s head, “There you are.”

The room plunged into silence in an instant, and Lorelei’s ears rung. Despite the orange glow, the room’s temperature had dropped, and if she had breathed, Lorelei thought she might see it.

“It’s okay, honey,” Betsy Jo spoke to no one, “I’ll help you. You can use me to talk to these nice people. Go on now.”

She snapped her head back, then gently dropped it forward again. Sleepy eyed but only for a moment, they popped open and she gasped, “No way!” Eagerly, she looked around the room, blinking, then down at herself, any trace of her accent gone, “This is too cool!” The look she wore disappeared, and her voice changed back to its failair southern drawl, “Don’t get comfortable, ya hear? I’m only allowin this so you can answer these nice people’s questions.” She gulped and nodded, her voice again dropping its accent and taking on a lilt, responding to herself, “Yes, yes, okay.”

As Betsy Jo looked out on them, they came to the shared conclusion she was no longer herself. Or she was a fabulous actor.

“So,” Ziah drew out the word, biting a lip, “are you our troublemaker?”

Betsy Jo shook her head, violently, eyes wide and unblinking.

“You’re not the one who made the chandelier fall or let the goats out?”

“Or unknotted all my ties?” Seamus piped up and the woman looked at him. “I, uh, have Arista pre-tie them all.” He grinned.

“Nu uh,” she shook her head again, then winced as if she’d been stabbed. Betsy Jo sighed, “Tell the truth,” in a scolding, southern drawl. “Ugh, okay, it was me!” she hung her head.

The alarm draining from her face, Ziah pursed her lips, “Well, why?”

“Cause,” Betsy Jo huffed, “I felt like it.”

The group traded looks, still holding one another’s hands though it felt normal now. Ren appeared composed again, and asked, “What is your name?”

“Samuel,” she ventured carefully.

Something stirred in Lorelei’s brain–a name, a face–but she couldn’t place it.

“And how old are you, Samuel?”

Betsy Jo’s eyes glanced around the table, and Samuel answered: “Forty nine.”

Ziah leaned forward, “How old were you when you…passed on?”

Samuel grumbled in the back of his throat, “Ten.”

“That’s a long time to be hanging around still,” Ziah offered cautiously, “Why are you still here?”

“I’m waiting for my mom and dad.”

A wave fell over the table and the cold felt different then, more empty. Ziah sat back, “Samuel, you could have hurt someone.”

“No!” he shouted using Betsy Jo’s voice, “I made sure nobody was around when I did those things! You didn’t get hurt, did you?” he looked directly at Lorelei.

She paused, then shook her head slowly.

“See, she’s fine.”

“Samuel, does Lorelei have something to do with why you’re…acting out?”

Betsy Jo’s eyes were staring daggers at her.

Grier laughed, “I knew it!”

Ziah glared at him, and he shut up immediately. She was careful how she went on, “Do you want to elaborate?”

“It’s just…that’s my fort, and she’s messing it up.”

“Your fort?”

“The room with the boxes,” he said as if they all should have known, “She moved everything.”

“The office,” Lorelei nodded at him, “I’m organizing the paperwork in there.”

“Typical,” Betsy Jo came back all at once, sitting up straight and arching a perfectly tweezed brow, “Construction and other big changes to living spaces really put a burr in their saddles, even the most casual hauntings. We can send Samuel to the other side, if you’d like. He’s not a particularly strong spirit, used up mosta his energy runnin all over hell’s half acre the last day.”

Though she clearly didn’t want the obstacle to her work, Lorelei felt a pang in her heart at that suggestion.

“That might be for the best,” Ziah offered quietly.

Suddenly panicked, Lorelei shouted, “Wait! What’s Samuel’s last name?”

Betsy Jo was quiet a minute, rolling her eyes back, “Winchester.”

She searched her mind. “Can I talk to him again? Just for a second?”

Closing her eyes, the woman sighed, then when she opened them again they were looking straight at her. There was panic in them, just like how she had felt a second earlier. “Sam, do you want to stay here?”

This time he nodded frantically.

“You know, if I finish organizing the office, there will be a bunch of space in there for you to play.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she couldn’t help but smile at the look Betsy Jo was giving her, even if it was an act, “But you can’t mess up the papers. And you definitely can’t drop heavy things from the ceiling.”

“I know.”

“Promise,” Ziah added, narrowing her brow.

“Yeah, yeah, promise!” Betsy Jo shook her head then blinked, “So what? No cleansin?” It was her again.

“I guess not,” Ziah shrugged and flashed a quick smile at Lorelei.

“Well, I ain’t givin ya a discount.”

Betsy Jo spoke to the manor’s spirits again, bestowing thanks on them and protection on the circle, and ended their communication gracefully. When finished, she released Grier and Seamus’s hands and placed her own flat on the table. She looked tired, if only for a moment, then pushed herself up to stand and began shaking hands.

Ziah touched Lorelei’s shoulder and leaned over in her ear, “Nice catch with the Winchester reservation.”

“Every year,” Lorelei sighed, “It must be sad for them.”

Betsy Jo took Ziah away then to discuss payment, and Lorelei lingered near the door while the others filed out, Grier now avoiding her gaze like the plague. Finally Betsy Jo broke off from Ziah and reached out for Lorelei’s hand. She was reticent to take it, but when she did, felt that same spark that had shot around the table.

“Oh!” Betsy Jo jerked as if she’d heard someone call her name. “Well,” she smiled, “they got a lot to say about you.”

Still trapped in her handhold, Lorelei attempted to lean back, but was only pulled in closer. “She won’t do it,” she whispered, “Trust yer gut, hun.” As if she read the look on Lorelei’s face, Betsy Jo LaReaux flashed her a dazzling red smile, “I’m bout as confused as a hen in a ping pong ball factory bout that too, but that’s what they want ya to know. Consider it a freebie.”

 

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Vacancy – 1.09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorelei nodded, mouth open.

“Ayoyagi says my skills are still very juvenile.”

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

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

“Yes!”

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

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

“I–it’s just…wow.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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