Empty Vessels Available for Preorder!

emptyvessels400

In the aftermath of a terrible accident, Keith is left with anxiety and depression. He’s also left with psychic powers, a ghost following him around, and the unwanted knowledge that not everyone in the world is human—some are something other. In the midst of all this turmoil, it’s the ghost, Lucas, who becomes his closest friend.

But when Keith starts having prophetic dreams about horrible monsters hunting Others down, he can’t remain uninvolved anymore. Against his better judgment, and with Lucas’s support, Keith begins to pursue the truth of what’s really out there, what sorts of people they are, and what his own role could be in this strange new world of spirits and monsters.

I couldn’t be happier to announce my newest novel: Empty Vessels! This is a story of an literally-haunted anxious young man who steps up to help out the otherworldly community against a darker force. It involves possessed dolls, faceless ghosts, bone girls and horned boys and things that go bump in the night and, sometimes, smooching.

It is available for preorder in ebook form from Less Than Three Press (print orders to be added closer to the release). Preorder to save 15%!

Word count: 80,000
Categories: Paranormal, Urban Fantasy, Gay, Bisexual, Poly (m/m/m)
Release Date: November 21, 2017, at 7pm EST

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Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 21

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

Tam needed to eat breakfast anyway, since today was going to be pretty busy. And it would be pretty rude to just run out on Lithway after the night they’d shared.

“Sure,” he said. “If you’re ordering from a deli or diner, just…some kind of eggs and meat mix? I’ll probably need the protein. I’ll be out there in a minute, I just need to email some people about brother things.”

Lithway blew him a kiss. “Certainly, dear,” they said, and vanished back around the bookshelf, just a shadow drifting between them.

Tam dug his computer out of his bag and wrote some notes to himself as he tried to plan the day. It’d probably be good to have some idea of what he could ask from his potential allies, if he was going to start to pull an action plan together.

At breakfast, he could discuss a little more what Lithway might be able or willing to help him with, he figured. They were close enough now that maybe Lithway had a way of getting him in and out—if nothing else, they could manipulate their own shadows pretty efficiently. Though, of course, that would require an infiltration plan sometime outside of the early evening hours of their performance.

When he met with the weredogs, he’d have to assume that their keen noses might help him track his brother’s exact location. Their ability to transform at will might help there. Sahil had said the weredogs weren’t available at night since they couldn’t control the transformation then, but Tam wondered if needing them in dog form rather than human might help there. Then again, it was possible the full moon had other effects that might make them unavailable at night entirely.

The building itself, when he found it, would probably be under some kind of magical warding, whether to keep people out, or to alert Istem when people entered. Maybe he could ask Antoine if there were any charms he could get to keep them from going off. He figured Antoine likely knew Istem’s spells better than anyone, and there was no reason to think that he’d be geased to keep from helping this way. They could probably be designed to get through anyone’s charms.

Although he had yet to talk to the lawyer, ideally, some sort of legal summons could be a way to get her out of her house. Maybe the vampires could do something about that too, if he acted at night instead of the day—hard to say. Either way, he knew he had to look for opportunities to get her out of the house. Getting to his brother would be significantly easier if Istem herself wasn’t there. Though, on the other hand, he knew he couldn’t postpone a confrontation indefinitely, since she knew where his family lived. But anything that bought him more time would be good, too.

Then there were the vampires… Tam wasn’t sure yet what to do with them, if anything, which sort of stalled out his planning. They sounded a little volatile, but he knew they were one of the most powerful forces in the area. If nothing else, they might have information, and at best, they could be an incredible power to bring to bear against her. But if he did decide to get the weredogs involved in the extraction, things might get unpleasant. Worst case scenario, his allies might start fighting when he needed them the most.

Tam shook himself. He’d planned as much as he could this far in advance, he decided. He sent Sahil and Jared emails that he’d meet for lunch and dinner respectively and would like to arrange the meetings, and sent Antoine a message asking about the charms.

As he got dressed, Antoine replied pretty much at once—it seemed like he’d been waiting for something like this. No problem, I should be able to whip something up. I can’t guarantee she’s not changed the specifics on me, but I know the generalities really well. I’ll be in my shop until 5 (though I can close up if you need me to) so stop by there any time today. I also live over it but I’ll need to know in advance if you wanna come to my place after hours!

Tam finished dressing just as he heard Lithway at the room’s door, receiving the order. The lady running the delivery sounded starstruck, and Tam couldn’t blame her. He still couldn’t entirely believe he’d found himself in this situation.

He waited behind the shelves until the door closed—no point in ending up in the tabloids for this—then headed out to join Lithway. They had cleared a spot at their desk for Tam and handed him the delivery bag as he approached.

“It’s nothing fancy,” Lithway said with a false modesty, as though they’d cooked it themself. “But enjoy.”

Tam did, digging into it with voracious hunger. In between bites, he ran his thoughts past Lithway, who was resting their chin on their hand and watching Tam with an intensely curious gaze.

“Oh, certainly, like a spy? I think I could get you in and out if you wished,” Lithway said. “I could do more than that, even.”

“You did mention fisticuffs,” Tam admitted. “But I’d rather not get into a confrontation with her if I can avoid it.”

Lithway waved a hand dismissively, trailing smoke. “It’s something else. Can you keep a secret?”

“Of course I—”

“Because,” Lithway said, leaning in close, “it truly is one. I try to be very close to the chest about my abilities, you know. Many of the things I can do would, if it got out, make things more difficult for my kind, and also damage my reputation as an actor.”

Tam blinked. “Damage your reputation? Listen, Lithway, I promise, that’s the last thing I want to do. And… if it can help my brother, I’ll swear on anything you want me to swear on.”

“Swear on your life,” Lithway said. “If you’re not willing to do so, I understand, and won’t hold it against you in the slightest, because that’s a very deep oath to make. But I’m very serious about this. I care for you quite a bit already, dear boy, but if you told anyone, however close you think you are to that person, accidentally or deliberately, it would be the worst betrayal of my trust to you, and I would come for that life. So: will you swear on it?”

Tam looked at Lithway, wide-eyed. Although they’d said something so dire, the warmer smoke of their eyes was churning with an apparent excitement, and a grin lingered around the corners of their lips.

[Please suggest an action in the Comments.]

[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 ]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 20

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

Tam hesitated. On the one hand, it felt like he might be doing something wrong—his brother was off somewhere, kidnapped by a witch, and he was thinking about just… indulging himself? Was this what Ash would want—?

Thinking about that actually helped immediately.

Ash, Tam had to admit, would kick his ass if he found out that Tam’d had the chance to bang Lithway and didn’t take it.

He smiled back at Lithway, lifting a hand up a little daringly to touch their mass of smoky curls. “I don’t know anything about your folk,” he admitted. “Anything I should understand in terms of… cost? I mean, I keep meeting vampires and incubi, and I’m going to need to be alert and on my game in the next couple of days—”

Lithway laughed, a soft, melodic chuckle. “Oh, nothing like that, my sweet boy,” they said. “No cost whatsoever, and nothing more than you’d give to any other person. Effort and attention! All I want from it is the experience. You’re on a grand adventure, aren’t you? Allow me to be part of it.”

“Lithway,” Tam said with an embarrassed grin, “I’m so onboard with this plan.”

With another laugh, Lithway closed the distance and kissed him.

Their mouth was warm and soft, but without the same sense of solid pressure behind it in kisses that Tam had experienced before. Rather, there was something yielding about it—an impression that made sense a moment later as he felt smoke leak into his mouth through the small part in his lips. It stroked his tongue insubstantially, a flavor that he couldn’t quite identify in the lingering, teasing caress.

Tam drew a heavy breath in against Lithway and, when he let it out, he saw smoke leak out of his own nostrils.  

Somehow, that was absurdly exciting.

“The bed?” Tam suggested a little unsteadily.

Lithway smiled, rising as they took both of Tam’s hands to lead him over to it.

[jump to an 18+ scene]

The next morning, Tam woke from strange dreams—something about chasing his reflection in a mirror and continually finding the wrong faces there—but nevertheless woke surprisingly refreshed. His body felt not just good in the aftermath of the night before, but better than he would have expected after what must have, on a very technical level, been quite a workout.

He yawned, stretching out and getting his bearings.

Lithway wasn’t in the bed, which he’d expected; he doubted that they slept at all. But he could hear soft humming from elsewhere in the room, hidden by the bookcases, along with the occasional tak-tak of keys. They must be on the computer.

Tam rolled over and fished around beside the bed—nearly falling out of it, it was so high—until he found his clothes, dragging them up on the bed with him. His phone and Ash’s were in both his pockets, and he took them out to catch up on things quickly.

First, he checked Ash’s phone, reminding himself that there was still one thing he hadn’t checked—the location history. He loaded up google maps’ timeline—and was relieved to see that it had stored information. Ash usually had it turned off, but when he was told he was being taken, he must have turned it on. Tam let out a breath of relief. He couldn’t be sure when exactly the phone was handed over to Antoine and so which stop was Ash’s last—but he had a good guide of the walk path, and could compare that to the photos.

He checked his own after that. No message from Lithway’s lawyer contact yet, but that wasn’t a surprise, given that it was only nine in the morning. He did have messages both from Sahil and Jared, however.

Sahil’s said: So glad to hear you got some good information out of the meetup! I’m not working today but I’m happy to hit up the library if you need more research from me. The others there want to help too. I did talk to our leader and she’s willing to chat with you! I don’t know for sure if she’ll offer aid or not, so if you have more promising leads you can always just skip. But if you want to have lunch together we can have an early afternoon chat with her after?

Jared’s said: Got everything set up, dude. You wanna do dinner? You can catch me up on things properly and we can go over after it’s full dark. If you wanna bow out lemme know in advance and I’ll make an excuse but the contact already talked to Dupré so if you do that, he probably won’t wanna work with you after. But do what you think is best to help your bro, okay? I’ll do what I can to make things work.

Ash turned the phone off without replying to either message, thinking his options over as he began to dress. He wasn’t sure if there was anything else he’d want to do or other people he’d want to talk to that might interfere with either of those plans. Before he’d decided how to reply, the humming stopped, and Lithway—in a humanoid form again—leaned around and smiled at him.

“Awake, my dear co-lead?” they asked cheerily. “I don’t have any food in here since I don’t eat, but it appears I could get delivery. Or are you going out to continue on your quest to save your brother?”

[Please suggest an action in the Comments.]

[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 ]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 19

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!
Although Antoine and Lithway both got two votes, one of
the Antoine votes had leaned more toward another option….]

“I think I’m good,” Tam said after considering it for a few moments, his tone almost apologetic.

“I get it,” Antoine said, holding both his hands up. “I really do. I’m the guy who handed your brother off to a witch, after all.”

Tam shook his head, not making direct eye contact. “It’s not that—I honestly do trust you. You didn’t know who I was when you stepped in to help me out when that vampire guy tried to mug me earlier, but…” He shrugged. “Even if you completely believe that Istem doesn’t have any way to spy on you, that doesn’t mean it’s true, right? Especially if she knows you weren’t too happy to be used to bring my brother to her.”

“Fair enough,” Antoine said. “Do you have a place to stay, though?”

Tam hesitated, then nodded. “Someone else already offered to help me out,” he said. “I don’t have to go home before I’m ready. Hopefully with Ash there with me.”

He wasn’t sure exactly how much he’d offered Lithway in return, but then again, Lithway was a gorgeous celebrity, and Tam’s birthday had been pretty lousy so far. He hoped he could let himself have something nice—especially if the phone had good news.

There wasn’t more he could do tonight anyway.

“I’m glad,” Antoine said. He drained his drink in one smooth gesture, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Can I walk you there? I’d like to make sure you get wherever you’re going without getting kidnapped.”

“That’s completely fine,” Tam said, embarrassed. “Honestly, I’m grateful.”

They headed out of Beanheadings, making their way through the dark city streets. Antoine seemed bigger somehow, more secure. After they’d gone a few blocks, Tam tilted his head, looking aside at him. “Are you doing something?”

“Just a little protective magic,” Antoine said. “To make sure we get left alone.”

“I was supposed to have some on me from Istem,” Tam said after a moment, “in exchange for her taking my brother. My parents wanted to protect the family. But I still had that guy come up to me today…”

“That’s weird,” Antoine said, after an equally thoughtful pause. “Maybe they’re the sort set to go off when attacked only? I don’t really remember meeting you before, so I can’t say if I noticed protections up then. Deterrents are usually more effective, I’d think. You weren’t attacked any other time you came down here?”

“No. But who knows why,” Tam muttered. “I was usually with my brother when I came down here, so maybe both of us together were enough of a deterrent.”

They walked in silence a bit further before Tam stopped; they were on the block with the library and the theatre, and he didn’t want Antoine to see where he went for sure in case Istem had some way of tracking that. “It’s just up here,” Tam said. “Thanks again for your help.”

“No problem,” Antoine said. He lifted a hand as he turned to go. “You’ve got my number, and you know where my shop is. Let me know if you need any help, magical or otherwise.”

“Will do,” Tam said. He watched until Antoine rounded the corner, then jogged to the theatre and up the steps.

He stayed under the awning there for a few moments, quickly texting Sahil an update for when he could use phones again, and also dropping a line to the safety friend (who he’d told only that he was meeting up with a dubious date, giving date, time, location, and the usual stuff) that he was fine.

Then he dug his brother’s phone out of his pocket, opening it up and looking through his apps and files.

At first, he was disappointed. Nothing in the videos, no new points left on google maps, no notes. But Antoine had said Ash had gone along in a hurry, and that meant he wouldn’t have had too much time to do anything fancy. And, sure enough, when he checked Ash’s gallery, there were a series of photos: some shop names, some street corners, a fancily decorated post on the corner, an unusual store display, and similar.

Landmarks. They weren’t ones that Tam recognized, but they were ones he could compare against the urban explorer’s guide, and talk to other locals about.

His heart soared and he tucked the phone away again, turning to go meet Lithway.

When he first rattled the handle, he thought the theatre door was locked, but a moment later, it opened under his touch. He slid through into a semi-darkened lobby, only one set of lights on, and looked around a bit uneasily.

Some places were ones where you didn’t feel like you belonged when it was after hours; it had been odd enough earlier, when there was no show on, and downright eerie now.

“Hello?” he called. “Lithway? I’m here…”

Tam’s voice echoed out in the lobby, and he shook himself, heading for the door he’d gone through previously to enter the backstage area. A shadow flickered out of the corner of his eye, and he turned, abruptly remembering the vampire earlier—

But Tam turned right into a crushing warm embrace, darkness flooding over him for a moment as his face was pressed into robes made of shadows.

“There you are, my sweet boy,” Lithway murmured. “I thought perhaps I’d scared you away.”

Lithway smelled like lavender, which even Tam thought was a very inane realization to make in the moment.

The actor released him, and Tam drew a surprised, deep breath. “Uh, maybe you have now!” Tam said, but laughed, knees weak with relief. “I’m sorry I didn’t write or call, I didn’t want the person I was with to know who I’ve been working with, just in case…”

“Now that sounds like a story,” Lithway said, smiling. Their dark eyes were a paler black in their face, as though they’d literally lit up somehow. “Why don’t you come tell it to me?”

Lithway led the way back to their room, and poured Tam some wine as Tam explained what he’d been up to for the rest of the day—he kept some of the details back for succinctness’ sake, but he’d already told Lithway that he was meeting an Antoine who he’d then suspected to be the witch’s son, and was the person who had taken Ash. He didn’t see any harm in filling Lithway in on how the meeting went.

Sipping their own wine, Lithway hmm’d their way through most of the story, interjecting appropriate gasps of shock (when the vampire appeared) and murmurs of sympathy (over the things Tam had learned about Istem).

When Tam was finished, he was feeling more relaxed—nowhere near drunk, thankfully, but the wine had helped calm him down and the chance to talk the latest encounter over with someone seemed to take a weight off as well.

“My dear,” Lithway said, leaning their chin on their hand at an angle that didn’t quite look comfortable to someone with bones, “it sounds like you’ve had quite a night at the end of quite a day! Before I say anything else, let me assure you: I’ve been in contact with our lawyer and impressed the urgency on him. He passed the request onto one of his acquaintances who works on cases like yours, and she’ll be in contact with you tomorrow, if you don’t mind leaving me some way to have her contact you?”

“Oh! No, that’s great,” Tam said, flustered. “That’s perfect. I know legal proceedings are slow, but better to have everything on the go than nothing, right?”

“The words of a clever man,” Lithway agreed. “Now, business aside…” They put their cup of wine down on the desk with a gentle click and leaned forward. Their cloak of shadows billowed in tatters around them to rest on the arms of Tam’s chair, almost wrapping around him, but not quite touching. “Would you like to spend some time just celebrating your twenty-first year? Or are you too tired?”

Tam drew in a slow breath of that lavender-scented darkness. This part over the theatre was an old apartment building; more rooms than Lithway’s might still be available, if he wanted to just sleep. He could probably even stay in this room and do nothing more—if he wanted to.

But he didn’t really want to be alone, and he was more than a little interested, heart beating fast, every one of his senses seeming more alert. Lithway’s face hovered a hand’s breadth from his own, smoky eyelids covering their eyes, a faint smile lingering on their lips.

[Please suggest an action in the Comments.]

[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 ]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 18

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

Of course Ash would leave him messages if he had the chance. It wasn’t even a shock; the moment he heard it, everything about Antoine having the phone became clear.

Tam put a hand over the cell, pulling it over to himself. It felt warm under his hand, full of potential, but he didn’t open it just yet. Antoine seemed more than willing to help, but that didn’t mean that Miss Istem hadn’t laid any traps to get information. It was probably better to hold off on looking until he was in private.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t get some idea of what Ash might have done, and if he’d learn anything about Istem from this. “When did he hand it off to you?”

“Before I took him in to meet her,” Antoine said. “I don’t know how much or little he could have got in there since we were moving pretty fast, but hopefully whatever it is helps.”

Tam nodded, and slid it into his pocket. Antoine didn’t seem surprised, smiling a little wryly before taking a sip of his drink.

It felt heavy there, a good weight. Even just knowing that Ash had been leaving him messages felt like he’d almost won. If Ash had done that, it meant he was trying to rescue himself already, and had been even before he was taken.

Unless it was a don’t find me message, which was always a possibility with Ash, though Tam didn’t think it was likely. He was sure Ash would be in love with his own witch potential… but probably not enough to stay someone’s servant.

Which just brought things back to getting Ash back from her. From what Antoine had said, bringing pressure on her might work, but he’d have to do it carefully, maybe finding a way to block her route out. Otherwise, she might just cut her losses and take Ash with her.

He guessed he’d have to be sneaky somehow.

“I’ll take a look at that later,” Tam said. “Right now, honestly, what’d really help me is more of a reference on magic. I don’t know much at all! Would it be going against your geas to answer questions about magic? Like, what’s a magical battery? How long will it take her to determine that? If Ash isn’t able to learn, will he already be in danger?”

“Oh! It’s no problem at all for me to answer that sort of thing,” Antoine said, brows raising. He put his mug down, empty. “Ask me any time  about magic in general. So, that’s going to be a worry once she gets him through the gate, not before. She can’t really assess either his capacity for power or his ability to learn until he’s in the thick of the power that’s down there and she sees how he connects to it. If he’s a slow learner, or someone who can’t connect to it well, she’ll… invert his magical potential, essentially, and drain him of his energy.”

“That’s completely fucking horrifying,” Tam said, his tone almost light. He was having a hard time even really comprehending how awful that would be. “But I guess something to put aside until later. Do normal witches not do what she does? I mean, take them across?”

Antoine hmmed. “As I understand it, having not been in that situation myself, I think they spend a lot of time getting acclimatised, and move them back and forth across the gate a lot. Sort of like, uh, strength training, you have to work up to it.”

“Well, I’m not sure I understand entirely,” Tam admitted. “But I’m interested. How long have you been away from her?”

Although Antoine hadn’t signalled for it, the glaistig barista came by and gave him another drink. He looked up in apparent surprise, but she waved it off. “Matt said you’d need it,” she said, gave him a rough smile, and drifted off again.

“They’re pretty nice here,” Antoine told Tam, sounding embarrassed. “I’ve been out three years now. She didn’t call in the geas until just now.”

“What’ve you been doing in the meantime?” Tam asked. He rested his chin on his hand, leaning forward to watch him, and thought he saw Antoine blush in response. “Other than becoming a popular regular here!”

“I live nearby, so I come a lot,” Antoine said, embarrassed.

“No, I’m serious,” Tam said. “I’ve been thinking about you all day—even if I didn’t know it was you. I want to know more about you.”

Antoine hid his face behind his mug, then peeked out with a flustered laugh. “I mean, sure, okay? I’m a kitchen witch. I own a small bakery a few blocks away. Miss Istem has always wanted to leave a legacy behind, and I absorbed entirely the wrong things for her tastes, but became strong enough quickly enough that she couldn’t make me a battery. I know a little of her style of things, but mostly I just… ” He shrugged. “I like good food, and I like seeing people enjoy the food I make. I was hoping she wouldn’t call on me so I could just keep working on growing my business. But here we are.”

“Here we are,” Tam repeated. “Is your shop, uh… Loaf Portions?”

“That’s the one! You’ve heard of us?”

“I saw it on the map,” Tam admitted. “But I think I may have even bought pastries there before with my brother. I remember Ash pointing out it was a play on words. I can’t remember if it you we talked to, but he asked the clerk if you actually made love potions.”

“I get asked that a lot,” Antoine admitted, smile softening. “Well, since you two are customers, I definitely have to help you however I can. …Hey, can I ask you something?”

Tam nodded. “Shoot. I can’t promise to answer, though.”

“What are you going to do after this?” Antoine asked. He held up a hand to forestall Tam’s protests. “I don’t mean your plan. I mean… tonight. When I picked your brother up, I saw you guys lived at home. I met your parents. Their attitude about it being necessary… you must be pretty hurt right now.”

Tam lowered his gaze. “Yeah.”

“I remember what it’s like,” Antoine said. “For me, it wasn’t my parents—they died in an accident when I was a lot younger. But my guardian got tired of having a teenager around. …Are you going back there tonight?”

Suddenly, Tam was incredibly tired. He sighed, finishing off his drink and gazing up at the rafters of the building. An old man was seated up there, and Tam watched him kick his leg in lieu of meeting Antoine’s eyes while talking about this. “I don’t know. I don’t want to. I mean, if I stay out, I’ll let them know I’m okay, of course. But I don’t know if I can face them just yet.”

Antoine nodded. “I’d understand if it was too strange, but I’ve got a comfy couch in my apartment if you need a place.”

Tam hesitated, trying to figure out how to respond. There was Antoine’s offer, and Lithway’s, or he could spend some of his savings on a hotel… if he could still get one at this hour. Or he could just go home, whether or not he avoided his parents while there.

[Please suggest an action in the Comments.]

[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 ]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 17

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

Tam knew he was staring, but under the circumstances, he thought it was a reasonable response.

“It’s okay,” Antoine said, sounding both resigned and hurt, “you don’t have to tell me where your home is or anything. But at least let me take you somewhere that you can meet up with a friend?”

“Oh, no,” Tam stammered, realizing that his reaction probably was coming across all wrong. “No, it’s not that. It’s just. Hang on.”

“All right,” Antoine said, with bemused patience.

Tam took out his phone and sent a text.

Ash’s ringtone got as far as  my humps, my humps, my lovely— before Antoine whipped the phone out of his pocket and silenced its octave-raised, fully orchestrated, horrific beauty. “Are you kidding?” Antoine asked, both brows raised.

“No, that’s… why I was so…” Tam gestured all around his face. “Whatever this was doing.”

“Here I thought it was me.” Antoine smiled at him, and despite everything, Tam found himself smiling back.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t so absurd. Stepping in to help a stranger out was both a nice testament to Antoine’s character and a pretty good first impression.

“Let’s go to the cafe anyway,” Tam suggested. “I’d like to ask you a few questions, if you’re all right with that?”

The smile on Antoine’s face had faded a little, but now he mostly looked thoughtful. “Yeah, that’s reasonable,” he said. “I imagine you would.”

They headed there together in silence, Tam trying to calm his adrenaline-fast heart and put questions together in some reasonable semblance of order, Antoine keeping an eye out around them as he went.

Probably for the best, given what had just happened.

Antoine pushed into the shop, the little head-shaped bell over the door making a merry jingle. It was hopping, busier now than it had been during the day—odd for a coffee shop, but, Tam conceded, maybe not for one run by monsters. To make up for the rush, Matthias had been joined by two other baristas to run orders and make drinks, a lovely female satyr—no, perhaps a glaistig? Tam had never been sure of the difference between the two—and an androgynous person who appeared human. Matthias lifted his brows on seeing them come in together, but gestured back toward the table he’d described as Antoine’s usual, as if to indicate that it was free.

Antoine led him through the bustling crowd, mostly made up of monsters flitting around and drinking and chatting, but with the occasional human in there—or person who looked human enough that Tam couldn’t tell the difference, at any rate. When the reached the table, Antoine said, “Take a seat. What’ll you have? My treat.”

He’d probably regret coffee this late. “Um, decaf maybe? I need to calm down after that…”

The laugh he earned was a soft, warm sound, almost lost in the chatter of the crowd. “Do you want something in it?” Antoine asked. “They make a nice decaf Irish coffee.”  

“You know,” Tam said, “I probably shouldn’t, but I’ll say yes.”

Antoine saluted with two fingers, and headed through the crowd to get in line.

Tam took a deep breath, then forced himself to get his thoughts in order. It seemed, fortunately, to take very little time before Antoine was back with their drinks. If he had to wait much longer, he thought he might go nuts.

“Here.” Antoine slid a drink across.

Tam bit his lower lip, suddenly conscious of how he hadn’t seen that drink get made, nor watched Antoine carry it through the crowd. “Actually,” he said. “Can I trade you?”

Antoine’s brows shot up again, and then he laughed. “I want to be hurt by that, but it’s pretty understandable.” He gestured to the drinks, allowing Tam to swap them, then picked the decaf up and leaned back in his seat. “Mine’s got caffeine, though.”

“Eh. I’ve had a long day, it probably won’t keep me up too late,” Tam said. He took a sip; it was delicious. “So. I’m Tam.”

“Nice to meet you.” Antoine took Ash’s phone back out of his pocket and slid it across the table. “Here, you’ll want this back. Your brother seems like a handful. If I had to hear that ringtone one more time I think I’d have pitched it out a window despite everything.”

“He sort of is,” Tam said, that ache starting back up in his chest again. “But… I love him. And I want him back.”

Antoine nodded slowly. “Yeah.”

“I know who you are,” Tam said honestly. “Or at least, I know that Bella Istem took you too.”

That earned him a wince. “Yeah. It wasn’t great.”

Tam cupped his hands around the drink; it was a warm night, but nevertheless, his fingers felt cold with the shock and anxiety of the confrontation outside, the stress of the day. It felt good to hold. “So I don’t know how much you can say, and what would get you in trouble.”

“I’m under geas to avoid some things,” Antoine said. Some coffee had spilled; he doodled with it on the tabletop absently. “That’s how she does it. She’s been doing this a long time. If someone survives being her servant for seven years, which is really no guarantee, they’re no longer beholden to her as an apprentice—they’re a full witch. But right before that day, she sets up a geas to task them to pick up another one of the people she’s bargained for. She makes… a lot of bargains. Doesn’t come back for all of them, mind, sometimes she gets a bumper crop. She plans for a certain number of them to turn out as incapable of learning magic, and turning them into her power sources.” Antoine sighed, then wiped his doodle away. “Didn’t happen this time.”

“So she made you go get Ash,” Tam said, voice rough.

“Yeah. And she geased me to not tell anyone who came looking for him where to find him.” Antoine said. “So… anything you ask that I can’t answer, I simply won’t be able to say.”

“There’s that, at least,” Tam said, sighing. “Was Ash okay when you saw him?”

“Lively, yeah,” Antoine said. “He seemed… weirdly not shocked to be picked up? I mean, he wasn’t expecting it, he didn’t know why I was there and he’d never heard of Miss Istem, but—”

“That’s normal,” Tam said. “Ash has always been the hero of his own story.” It had been a joke between the two of them, that Ash was the hero, and Tam the quiet one who kept his head down.

Nevertheless, Antoine nodded as if that made sense to him. “Hopefully he’ll do all right, then. I hate that I passed him over to her. I’d like to do something to help him out, if I could. That’s why I kept answering the phone… it feels like, here’s this boy whose family’s looking for him. Should I just suck it up because I’m geassed to not tell him the details? There’s gotta be loopholes.” Antoine paused. “…Actually, do you want my real number? In case after we leave tonight, you think of more to ask. I want to make sure I can help.”

He sounded like he was being honest, pained and guilty. Something in Tam relaxed a little more at that. “Sure,” he said. “I was going to ask you anyway.” As Antoine sent him the number, Tam drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “I don’t know what is safe to tell you. Can she get information from you through the, uh, geas?”

“Shouldn’t be able to,” Antoine said. “She’s got other ways, but I’m hoping to not see her again to let that happen. At least, not without a real good plan. I also can’t attack her directly, mind.”

Tam nodded. “Can you tell me anything about her enemies? Or how best to approach her if I were trying to, you know, do something to get my brother back?”

“Enemies, no,” Antoine said. “Not in specifics. But she’s not very popular, here or in other Valleys. She doesn’t make friends. As for approaching her… she’s really egotistical and sure of herself. She’s been running this scheme for decades and she’s good at it. Gets others to pick the new servants up so she’s not exposed, steals them away to the Otherworld often a little earlier than she should. She’s confident in things working the same way they always do, and she’s confident in her strength. I think it’d be nice to see that confidence torn down—but who knows if that’s possible? I didn’t get away, I just survived.”

“Sorry to make you go through this,” Tam said softly. “I just… I don’t know where she is. And if she’s going to rush him through the, the acclimatization, I’m going to need to come up with something really fast.”

“Well,” Antoine said, “I can’t tell you where she is, but I also didn’t tell your brother to put his phone away while I took him.” He nodded to the phone where it was sitting on the table. “Now, I didn’t watch what he was doing with it, and I haven’t looked in his gallery or notes or anything, just in case that might trigger things, so I can’t promise he’s left you anything helpful. But he told me to hold onto this, and the next thing I know, I’m getting messages from you. So…”

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[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 ]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 16

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

The news should have been a shock, but somehow, it was a relief. Finally, some sort of answer, something to start filling in pieces of the puzzle.

Tam had to force himself to not feel too relieved—after all, knowing that Antoine had been a victim like his brother didn’t mean for sure that he would really be on Tam’s side. For one thing, Lithway had said that people who were taken through the gate came back different.

Besides, there was some evidence he was somehow in collusion with Miss Istem, willingly or not. There was the picture of Istem with the contract that the person who had taken Ash—presumably Antoine?—had with him, and Antoine had gotten hold of Ash’s cellphone somehow.

Yet Tam found himself wanting to believe the best of Antoine. He could only imagine that an apprentice of Istem’s, stolen away in the night when still a teenager, would want to prevent others from being her captive as well, especially if his area of magic was, as rumor said, different from hers. Or, if he did want to be at her side, he might resent seeing his replacement being recruited. Or, after years of it, he might be tired of her taking yet another victim who would become one of her ‘batteries’. Either way, he’d have some kind of stake in this.

Well, no point in making decisions about him, or anything else, until I’ve met him tonight.

And until then—

Tam tried to do a bit more research. He really did. He did a bit more googling based on the Magic 101 info Sahil had sent, and did learn a little more—witches weren’t ‘born evil’ or ‘born good’, but magic spells were like languages, detailed grammar and phrasing that needed to be learned. Learning multiple languages was tricky, but not impossible—and much easier if they were just dialectic differences, or languages based on a common root. Maleficia and beneficia were in many cases quite different in formation, which, along with personal preference, was why specialization appeared.

But Tam was getting frustrated. His head felt ready to burst with information, and the more he read, the less he felt like he was retaining at this point. The basic details, like the ‘languages’ point, made sense; the rest began to swim in an overwhelming muddle.

When he realized he was skimming, he closed the page and loaded up the urban explorers map again, trying to mark the area around Beanheadings to his own memory. He skimmed over the store names—many of them would closed at this hour—and confirmed the information he had already learned about Dupré and the weredogs’ territory overlapping around there, and then just—gave up on that too.

He closed it, rubbed his forehead, and loaded up Youtube.

Now that was refreshing. Dogs singing, dogs dancing, dogs catching balls and playing with toys. As he watched, he wondered again what kind of dog breed Sahil might turn into—a serious one, like his personality? An incongruously cute one? One of the weird-looking ones? Was he a pug or a greyhound, a borzoi or a chihuahua…?

“Chill,” he muttered to himself. He was probably being weird about this. He didn’t want to act in a way that Sahil would be embarrassed by, or make him feel objectified or anything like that. At the same time, it was probably, he figured, a normal response to knowing an old crush turned into a dog without knowing any more details. Would it be offensive to ask? If Sahil wanted to say, surely he’d have just told him…

While Tam was resting, Jared replied to just quickly note that tomorrow was fine, he was making sure he was pulling on his contacts tonight to get everything safely set up. Tam thanked him and also sent a link to a video of a dog chasing a butterfly due to an accidental copy-paste, but he figured Jared would probably appreciate it anyway.

At 9:15 he finally put everything away, refreshed by food, drink, and having just getting off his feet and zoning out on videos for a bit. He figured he’d get down to Beanheadings a little early, get situated in there to watch people come and go, and to touch base again with anything he could learn from Matthias or whatever other baristas might be on shift along with him.

He was still two blocks away from the coffee shop when a stranger stepped out of an alley and blocked his path.

“Look at the warmblood running around here,” the stranger crooned. He was a tall man with skin as pale white as it could get and still have some hint of pink, two spots high in his cheeks. His piercing blue eyes were fixed unblinkingly on Tam. “You smell so fresh. Hey, warmblood, think the Valley’s friendly to your sort after dark?”

That… was an unanticipated problem. Tam tried to make eye contact with the people scurrying past around them, stepping on the street to get out of the way of the conflict, but they avoided looking at him.

Shit. “I’m not carrying any cash,” Tam began, his voice more uncertain than he liked. It would have been better to broadcast confidence, but he couldn’t find any in him.

“Nah nah nah,” the mugger said. “Nah, it’s not your cash I want? You smell real good, warmblood. Like you’re new.”

Tam took a step back from him, glancing around again for a good chance to run, if he wasn’t going to get any help. This time, his eyes made contact with a passerby’s warm brown ones, which widened in surprise and a little anxiety.

The newcomer, a black man in his mid-twenties, looked between the mugger and the direction he’d been going, then squared himself up, stepping beside Tam, who almost sagged with relief. He moved closer to the newcomer in return. He was soft-faced, but was carrying a little weight on his arms and stomach that gave him more presence than Tam’s scrawny build, and though they were around the same height, his hair, shaved at the sides with the rest pulled up into a bun-like topknot, made him seem a little taller.

“Cut it out, buddy,” the newcomer said, sounding more annoyed than actually challenging. “I’ve got a silver ring on, you don’t want me to have to throw the first punch. You really want to make this two on one?”

The mugger made a face, then spat a reddish tinged mess to the side, turning to stalk back down the alley.

The newcomer relaxed just a little. “Jeez,” he muttered, apparently more anxious than he’d let on. He turned to Tam after taking a moment to just breathe. “You okay? I’m heading somewhere right now, but I’m a bit early. If you’re not going far I can walk with you.”

“I’m okay, just freaked out. I’m only going a couple of blocks,” Tam said, dry-mouthed. His legs were shaking with the rush of adrenaline churning through his veins. “Thanks, seriously, I didn’t think anyone would stop.”

“I wasn’t even paying attention until you looked right at me,” the man admitted wryly. He offered a hand. “Name’s Antoine. Where’re you off to?”

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[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 ]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 15

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

Tam decided to head back to the library—sure, Sahil was going to send him the information, but this way he could ask a couple more questions. And it wouldn’t exactly do him any harm to see Sahil’s face again and remind himself how lucky he was to have good friends helping him out.

That, and Sahil was very easy on the eyes.

How had he fallen in among all these hotties, he wondered, with a spike of good humor. Had it just required spending more time on his own down in the Valley? If he’d known that, maybe he’d have come down here more often without his more attractive and gregarious twin.

He was directed to Sahil soon after arriving, finding him parked in one of the back rooms in front of a computer. Sahil seemed to perk up on seeing him, despite his faint air of confusion. Tam imagined that, in his dog form, he’d both have his head tilted and be wagging his tail.

“Tam! I was just about to email you.”

Tam smiled at him, pulling up a chair and dropping his bag a bit heavily next to him. “Thanks, I mean, that’ll be great for me to read over the next few hours. I was just leaving the theatre so I thought I’d stop by. You guys need anything?”

Sahil flushed faintly, but shook his head. “I’m fine, at least,” he said. “We’re all off soon anyway, and I think if we drank any more good coffee on top of the break room’s junk, we’re all going to climb the walls. Sceana’s already up there.”

Tam refused to look around. Whether it was a joke or not, it was an image he didn’t think he’d get out of his head. Why did snakes have to be such good climbers? “And you’ll be getting dinner on your way home?”

Pausing again, Sahil said, “Yes… I mean, normally I’d ask if you’d want to come along, but I imagine you’ll be reading this stuff and… well, besides, I try to get home early these nights. I was just gonna buy a manburger and take it with me.”

“Yeah, we can do that later, maybe?” Tam offered, earning a smile in return. “When things are more dealt with.”

“That sounds great.” Sahil hit send on his email; in his pocket, Tam felt his phone buzz. “Anything I can answer for you in person before you start digging into this?”

“A couple of things. I met Lithway in person.”

“Ah. They’re quite a character,” Sahil said dryly.

Tam could only nod. He felt his cheeks colour, but decided to avoid mentioning that Lithway had more or less invited him over tonight. He hadn’t decided how he felt about it yet, and just wasn’t ready to talk about the possibility. Besides, some things were better left private. “They’re very willing to help and didn’t seem to set terms, but.. I don’t really know anything about the shadowfolk. Lithway never answered anything about that in their interviews, and… pretty much the only thing I’m sure of is that they’re rare even among monsters, right?”

Sahil nodded, face growing serious. “They’re strange. It’s not just that they’re rare, but a lot of us aren’t sure they’re even monsters.”

“They’re definitely not human…”

“Right, I know,” Sahil said. “And they’re certainly like a lot of monsters. They can shape-shift, and pass through shadows, and are made of something other than normal material. But they’re like… the monster’s monster. There’s been no study done on them ever, that I know of. I can’t even direct you to any reliable information. Everything out there is pretty much just urban legend. Like, maybe they’re extra-dimensional beings or something. Some legends say they show themselves to portend doom, but I think Lithway appearing on stage for so long more or less guarantees that one’s false.”

“Lithway seems nice,” Tam offered.

“Maybe they are. They’re certainly friendly enough to all the librarians,” Sahil said. “A lot of people think the shadowfolk are curious about humans. Hungry to become more like them. Some of those myths are about them taking over lives. But, again, Lithway’s been on the stage for decades, which I think would be difficult if they did take anybody’s life over.”

“So basically a big nothing in terms of information.”

Sahil sighed. “Yeah. Even if some of those things are true generally, they may not apply to Lithway. Anyway, your gut instinct is often your best bet.”

“Thanks,” Tam said. “Did you send me anything on Dupré? I don’t know if I’ll ask for his help yet, or… even if it’ll depend on the time I’m able to go after the witch. I mean, they’re no good in the daytime. But the more informed I am, the better, right?”

“Definitely,” Sahil said. “Your friend might be a better source on him as a person, but I did send some stuff in there.”

“Thanks,” Tam said. He rose. “I’ll go give it a read now. I really appreciate it, Sahil.”

Flustered, Sahil said, “Please don’t mention it. He’s my friend too, you know?”

“Still,” Tam said gently. “…Take care of yourself tonight, okay?”

“Oh! It’ll be fine,” Sahil said, surprised. “It’s not like in werewolf movies. I can’t control the transformation but it’s not like I’m a berserk creature after. I mostly just spend the time playing with a tennis ball or licking peanut butter out of a Kong or something.”

Tam stared at him.

Sahil cringed at once. “No, I know that’s a little—”

“That’s too cute. I can’t handle you,” Tam told him, then laughed at the face Sahil made. “Let’s talk tomorrow. Have fun with your tennis ball!”

When Sahil mimed a kick at him, Tam scurried out.

As he left the library, he felt a helpless rush of gratitude. It was a terrible situation, but he was already further along than he would have thought possible this morning: he had some allies, and some possible leads, and the beginnings of a plan. All because of Sahil’s friendship, and the kindness of others.

Tam’s good mood raised his hunger, so he headed to a nearby restaurant, Mama Rosie’s, where he knew the food was both good and safe for human consumption. As he ate breakfast food for dinner, he kept his headphones in to listen to music, and read through the information that Sahil had sent.

He’d asked Sahil to check into lawyers, and, as such, there was a short list of reputable contract lawyers leading off the email. He felt a little guilty for doubling up on research for this, since he was fairly sure Lithway’s actual magic lawyers would be better equipped for handling this than if Tam contacted them himself. Still, in case Lithway for whatever reason had nothing, Tam now had a list and could move immediately if he had to.

Then there was the information on Dupré that Sahil had sent. It started with a summary of vampire traits—need blood, can’t handle the daylight, can’t cross running water, burn at the touch of silver. Garlic was not a deterrent, and crucifixes seemed to only work on vampires who thought they would—some sort of supernatural placebo. They gathered under local ‘princes’, their leaders, and kept strict territorial boundaries (ones that often overlapped with other types of monsters’ territories, as with Sahil’s organization). There were only two main vampire groups in Branwin, lead respectively by Ranier Dupré and Angelica Roth; Roth was paranoid about human intentions, and would likely only be a good source if for whatever reason Dupré was a wash, as the two hated each other.

Dupré, according to Sahil, was infamously lazy and a stay-at-home—practically a shut-in. He liked video games and old movies. Sahil did warn that the personality information came from his leader, though, who disliked Dupré due to their territorial disputes, and as such might not be entirely accurate.

He also asked Tam to please not mention to her that Sahil had said that.

Tam grinned.

Next up was a basic Magic 101, which Sahil said was probably important to read before the last section. It went over maleficia, or dark magic, and beneficia, the lighter magic. Beneficia was designed to aid and heal; maleficia to curse and harm. Things like the evil eye, cursing cows, curdling milk, and blighting crops were famous ‘classic’ maleficia, while well-known beneficia were things like healing the sick, helping people sleep better, love potions, charms to ease childbirth, and so on. Each of these could be further divided into specialties; for example, old midwives would focus on childbirth and healing female ailments. Other beneficia users would be things like kitchen witches who aided in speeding up the rising of bread, helping food go further so that a family without much could survive on less, food that kept you warm. Or they might be something like farming witches who would help with crops and weather and dealing with pests, healing ailments in animals, and the like. On the other side, maleficia users would focus on conjuration of demons, or subtle magic to harm others, or elemental attacks and weather-changing.  

That information was followed by the details the librarians had managed to dig up on Bella Istem herself. It was similar to what Lithway had told him—there were several records of people trying to get their friends or family back, only to find she’d spirited them out of the Valley and vanished with them before they could follow up on legal issues. It seemed she reappeared every so often, usually between three to eight years, and stole or bargained for a child in return for some apparently-helpful magic. Despite offering protection spells to convince people to trade others away, she was clearly a witch who worked maleficia, and she was known to be dangerous to cross. However, she never stayed in the Valley long.

Accompanying this was a list of the reported stolen children, with Sahil’s note that there may be additional ones not named. He had highlighted one of the names on the list:

Antoine Durand, taken 2007 at age 15.

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[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 ]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 14

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

For a moment, Tam had fantasies of chasing the witch down with Lithway at his back, perhaps in the form of a great shadowy beast.

And maybe it would come to that… but he had to be practical, too.

“I… I would really like some advice,” Tam admitted. “I’m not at all familiar with this. My parents kept me in the dark—I could have had years to figure something out, but instead it’s just happening now. I don’t know where she is; it’s only been a few hours since I even found out. I’m thinking maybe… something legal? If you run a theatre, you probably have Valley lawyers at hand, right? Ones who handle at least some kind of contract law…”

Lithway had moved when Tam blinked; they were now sitting almost knee to knee, the actor so close that Tam was nearly breathing in the smoke trailing off them. Lithway leaned forward and patted one of Tam’s legs, leaving their hand there and gazing up at Tam.

“My poor dear boy,” Lithway murmured. “What a shock this must have been! As dull as that is, I can certainly talk to some of my lawyers, get a recommendation of who would be best. They do exist; demons in particular employ very strict contract lawyers—so their own contracts don’t get violated. But my worry is that a legal battle will take a long time.”

This close, Tam could see every one of Lithway’s eyelashes, faint wisps of smoke around their eyes, winding softly away. “I mean, maybe, but would it be likely to get him back?”

“Unless her own contract is found to be binding. But even so, most witches only spend a few days in the Valley getting their conquests acclimatized to the gate, and after that, they whisk them away to our world. It’s not impossible to get a legal matter dealt with across those metaphorical state lines, but your brother may not be the same when he returns.”

Tam stared at them.

“Oh, you look ghastly, my dear,” Lithway said. They let go of Tam’s leg, but only to touch his face, a soft, sympathetic gesture. “You didn’t know. I’m so sorry. I suppose that’s the sort of thing only those who work closely with witches would know—I’ve worked with all sorts for special effects, and I’ve heard a bit of chatter around that. How long it takes will depend on how easily your brother acclimatizes, or if she has pressing business that keeps her here. It won’t be less than three days; I hope that helps in some way to know.”

It did—a little. At least he didn’t have to worry that the time he’d taken here had prevented him from finding his brother. He leaned into the touch, eating up the comfort Lithway was offering. “No, I… I didn’t know.”

“Get a copy made of the contract, and I’ll ask around with it,” Lithway said gently. “It can’t hurt to try that side of things along with whatever else you’re doing. We’ve got a scanner in the theatre office, if you need it. Make sure you hold onto the original—don’t give it to anyone who asks for it. It’s the only proof you’ll have.”

Tam nodded. “I’ll… I’ll do that.” He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, forcing himself to focus. “You said you know some local witches. Do you know the one in question? Bella Istem?”

“Oh, not personally,” Lithway said at once. “But I’ve heard of her in my social circles, and I know she’s bad news. She specializes in maleficia—what you’d consider to be the dark arts. She makes plenty of these contracts. Turns those with the power into her apprentices, to try to pass off the workload, and those without it into her batteries. I haven’t heard her name in years, though!” They patted Tam’s cheek, then leaned back in their ‘chair’.  “She’s not what I’d call one of the local witches, is what I mean.”

He swallowed, trying not to dwell on the thought of his brother being turned into a battery. “Okay. And I’m meeting someone today who has my brother’s phone, and I was told he’s a witch. I don’t know his last name, but… Antoine. I’ve been wondering if he’s her son? Because there was a man who came to get my brother. He had a picture of her with the contract. I don’t know if it’s the same person, though.”

“That’s interesting,” Lithway said thoughtfully. They snaked a smoke-wisp tongue out to lick their lips; Tam stared in fascination. The smoke of their tongue did somehow look wetter than the rest. “No, as far as I’ve heard, she doesn’t have a son, but as I said, I haven’t heard her name in years. I don’t know an Antoine, and without more details I’d be hard pressed to say if I’ve heard of him around the place. I mean, that does imply he’s not a very remarkable witch, or one who gets involved in anything that’d draw attention. I’d guess he’s small fry, whatever he is.”

“Oh.”

“But don’t get depressed!” Lithway announced. They’d moved again, and now was right beside Tam instead of facing him, throwing an arm around him and squeezing his shoulder. “That someone else picked your brother up might be something the lawyer would like to hear about. If she used the standard phrasing, ‘to collect as my own’, sending someone else might be a loophole, or perhaps sloppy practice. I can’t guarantee that, though—I’m no lawyer myself. If he worked for her, it might be a false lead.”

“Thank you,” Tam mumbled, a little shy, heart pounding, anxious and uncertain over the entire situation. “I… I’ll see what this Antoine has to say tonight, and if you can follow up with the lawyer, that’d be great. And… I mean, if I do find where she is, I’ll need to confront her…”

“Interesting, interesting,” Lithway said. “I certainly wouldn’t mind helping you, especially if you keep me in the loop, as it were. And as long as it doesn’t happen at the same time of one of my performances, of course. I owe it to my fans—I feel for you, my dear, I really do, but I’ve only ever cancelled shows for unavoidable emergencies.”

He tried not to feel disappointed. “No, of course! I understand that.”

“Oh, sweetheart, I hate to see that look on your face! It’s only a few hours to avoid,” Lithway coaxed. “The play is only an hour long, and I’ll just need the time before and a short time after to keep aside.”

Tam nodded, a little more heartened despite himself. Lithway really did seem invested, despite the lack of personal involvement in it. “Thank you,” he said, earnest. “Your willingness to help is so, so appreciated. I’m… so new to all of this, and I didn’t know where to turn…”

“Well, I’m always happy to be someone’s first experience with getting up close and personal with the uncanny, darling,” Lithway said. They smiled, the expression merry. “When’s your meeting with this Antoine?”

“Ten.”

“Aha! Well, feel free to come by after, if you wish,” Lithway said. “Don’t feel obliged, darling, especially if you need to run away home to rest up for another busy night, but I’ll be here, waiting, if you wish to, hm, tell me more about what you’ve learned. Perhaps I can make your birthday a little better.”

Lithway winked, and Tam wiped away any remaining doubts that he was being hit on by one of the most attractive, renowned actors the city had to offer.

“Oh,” Tam said. “I mean, yes, I’ll have to see how things are! Do you, I mean, a phone, so I can let you know even if I don’t come by—”

“I’ve got a landline, darling; there’s no point in me having a cell, everything physical passes right through when I lower my density.” Lithway dissolved a hand with a gesture to demonstrate, then reformed it and tapped Tam’s nose. “I do have email, though, and I can keep my computer on for you.”

“Thanks,” Tam stammered, tempted but confused by what appeal he possibly held. He took down Lithway’s address, then got up. “I should go photocopy that contract. Should I bring it back to you—?”

“Ah, pass it off to any of the cast,” Lithway said. “I have to start getting ready for rehearsal, sweetheart, or they’ll all get impatient and walk out on me!”

Tam sincerely doubted that, but nodded anyway. He smiled; that, at least, came naturally. Lithway had already offered to help much more than he’d had reason to expect from any stranger. “Thank you again,” he said.

“Please don’t mention it. You’ve got me curious now, dear, and you know what they say.”

“Curiosity, uh, killed—”

“But satisfaction brought it back. Go on, now!”

Tam showed himself out, and spent a moment in the hallway outside trying to recover from the Experience that was Lithway. Then, he headed down to copy off his contract, and found Joanne specifically again to pass it off; he wanted to be sure it’d make its way back to Lithway.

After, he checked his phone; it was somehow already five. The library would close at six, but he wasn’t sure if he needed to get back over there or not; Sahil had promised to email him the information. He imagined it’d be coming soon, since the sun would be setting around eight, and he presumed Sahil would be unavailable a short time before that regardless. He also needed come up with how to spend his time until ten tonight.

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[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 ]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 13

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Just being face to face with Lithway was overwhelming; the actor’s presence was something else. Even with them condensed into that solid, classically perfect masculine form in front of him, it felt like they were filling the entire room.

Maybe they were.

Wow.

Tam gulped, trying frantically to remember what he knew about Lithway to use as some kind of guide to approaching them. He’d read interviews, of course; they always came across as grandiose, but not exactly egotistical. Self-confident, certainly, but invariably turning the conversation around to doing it for their fans rather than for themselves. They talked about the roles they liked to take, the tendency to do one-man shows, and even the types of interviews they did as trying to bring more attention to the art, to highlight the characters and bring the best experience possible to the audience.

And their tendency to do one-man shows didn’t take work away from other actors—rather, they sponsored local playwrights and other actors, and hosted regular independent performances on the small stage downstairs. That, along with the donations to charities, and their regular presence in the lgbt+ community, cemented their reputation as a pretty good person—for an actor who was absolutely in love with themselves.

The only other details he could recall felt pretty inconsequential—that they lived above the theatre. That they identified as primarily nonbinary but partially male. That they regularly showed up to events they weren’t invited to just to keep people on their toes. That they liked to gamble and were a regular at the casino even though it was quite far out of the valley. That they bowled.

“I think this poor boy’s tied his tongue into a knot,” Lithway told Joanne. “A little starstruck?”

“Go easy on him, boss,” Joanne said. “His twin brother’s missing.”

“His brother—?”

“You know, Ash?” Joanne prompted.

“Ah.” Lithway turned their gaze back onto Tam, a frown creasing those shadowy features. “You do look a lot like him.”

“You know my brother?” Tam managed to get out. He forced himself to focus on the here and now: honesty had served him so far, and he couldn’t imagine being genuine would work against him. “Yes. It turns out, um, that our parents had promised their firstborn son to a witch on his twenty-first birthday. I found out today, I woke up to find him gone—”

“On your birthday!” Lithway exclaimed.

Tam glanced at Joanne; she was nodding seriously. Apparently he was on the right track.

“I, I didn’t know if he knew you or not,” Tam said. “I think, if he did, he was trying to keep it a surprise. He got tickets for tomorrow’s show with the chance to meet you…” He began to dig in his bag.

A hand on his stopped him. To his surprise, it was warm and solid, although he knew that Lithway was more than capable of being entirely insubstantial. Tam looked up into Lithway’s handsome face, tense.

He had to prepare himself for rejection. Maybe even to be laughed at. This was a famous actor, busy with an upcoming play, and more than that, was one of the shadowfolk. They’d probably seen a million children stolen by a million witches. One more didn’t matter.

“I believe you,” Lithway said, in that same, soft tone. Then they slung an arm around Tam and spun him around. “Come with me! No point in you standing here in the prop room distracting my crew right before the big night!”

It was incredible how Lithway could emote without being able to raise their voice at all. “I, ah, okay,” Tam stammered, but it wasn’t like he could protest even if he wanted to. Lithway’s strength was immeasurable, a solid presence at his back compelling him forward.

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help, boss,” Joanne called, tone cranky. “Ash is a good egg.”

“A good egg indeed,” Lithway said.

“I didn’t know you knew each other,” Tam said, then kicked himself when he realized that he’d said that already. “I mean, my brother never…”

“We weren’t exactly close,” Lithway said airily. “But I need to check out a lot of things from the library. Creative resources, you know, it never ends.” They were leading, or herding, Tam through another set of doors, then up some stairs, setting a demanding pace. “So I know most of the librarians, at least to look at them, and Ash seemed like such an eager boy. I always respect when today’s youth think of employment in places like that. Where do you work?”

Tam felt his cheeks heat. “My… my parents encouraged us to take a year off school, and, ah, they kept telling us to take it off work too, to enjoy our youth.” He couldn’t help but look back on that a bit bitterly, understanding their reasons in a new light. “Ash was, um, really passionate about library work. Me, I’ve been… well, I read history books, kind of recreationally. I’d like to prepare for a degree in history if it works out. Maybe classics…”

“Oh, brilliant,” Lithway enthused. “I think history is the best story of all. It’s incredible the way viewing it through different perspectives changes it entirely, even though it all factually occurred…”

They were in the old apartment area now; it seemed largely abandoned, but Lithway pushed Tam on regardless, kicking a door open—though it only appeared to be a kick at first glance. Their leg dissolved against the knob and key hole, and it opened immediately, as though Lithway themself was the key.

Tam got chills, but it didn’t feel exactly like fear. His heart was pounding.

That didn’t exactly lessen as Lithway lead Tam into their apartment. The living room was taken up with a large desk covered in books and writing materials, and the rest of it was filled with bookcases, forming a winding, maze-like path throughout.

The wall between the living room and bedroom had been removed, and Tam could see a large, four-poster bed that had been made up to match the decor of the theatre downstairs, all red velvet and gold gilt. Tam knew he was flushing, and averted his eyes.

Lithway released Tam at last and gestured to their desk. “Please sit! I don’t make my place terribly hospitable, but it’s surely nicer than trying to talk non-theatre business in the theatre.”

Tam sat in the desk chair, and across from him, Lithway formed a seat out of their own shadow, a magnificent throne-like affair, sitting and steepling their fingers in front of their face. Smoke trailed off them.

“Now,” Lithway said, “tell me what you need. Fisticuffs with the witch? A social media post denouncing them? I have many followers on Facebook, and a very broad social circle, I assure you! I cannot promise you the world, my sweet boy, but I can promise you my desire to help, if that alone is enough.”

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[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 ]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 12

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

There was no point in questioning himself now.

He’d already decided on a plan of action: meet with Joanne now if he could and Antoine later. And as interesting as the option with the vampires were, it wasn’t compelling enough to risk lowering his chances of getting something useful from two people tonight. Besides, Joanne, at least, would probably have a personal stake in this. Some vampire definitely wouldn’t.

And Antoine, too, was clearly invested in this in some way. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have kept answering Tam’s messages, or at least, wouldn’t have been so cagey about things. It was hard to say why this witch boy might have some investment in it, but even if he was Istem’s son, maybe he had some reason to act against her.

Besides, Antoine was his only real link to what might have happened to Ash recently. Tam would be a real fool to give up on that chance just to try to harness some power.

He replied at once to the email, not wanting to leave Jared waiting—especially if his contact was also waiting on it. No point in burning his bridges through carelessness. Jared, you’re incredible. Thank you. I can’t thank you enough! That said, I’m in the middle of chasing down a lead right now and I can’t risk letting it go. Tomorrow would be great if you can arrange it. Let me know what you need from me. Again, thanks just so, so much.

After he’d fired it back off, he headed up the steps, pushing his way in through one of the theatre doors. He was surprised to find them unlocked, but he supposed enough crew might be coming and going to make it worthwhile.

As the door swung shut behind him, he found himself briefly overcome by the presence of the place. The outside wasn’t much—the name of the theatre was outlined in bright lights over the glass doors, but it was set into the facade of what had once been an old apartment building and was otherwise unremarkable.

Inside, he found himself in front of the ticket booth and bar, with steps leading both up and down. The ones going up lead to the lounge rooms that people could head to during intermissions. Downstairs, he knew, was a small black-painted stage that people gave talks and amateur performances on.

But through the double doors straight ahead was the Theatre of Dreams itself, all gold gilt and red velvet. The doors were closed now, but Tam remembered it with a deep nostalgia. A huge painting in a neoclassical style filled the ceiling leading down to the proscenium stage, showing nymphs bestowing a smiling youth with gifts, his arms spread wide in beatific pleasure to receive them. When waiting here for shows to start, Tam would always gaze at it, wondering at the story behind it.

A dryad scurried past and he snapped out of his momentary sense of awe, grabbing at her arm. She turned to glare at him, scowl etched into her green face, her flute clutched in one hand. A member of the orchestra, it seemed.

“S-sorry,” he stammered. “I’m looking for Joanne Cooper? Something bad’s happened to a friend of hers, Ashton Lynes. Please, if she’s here, can you tell her his brother Tam needs to talk to her?”

“Whatever,” the dryad snapped, but she changed direction as she hurried on, so he could only hope that she was going to find Joanne.

He put a hand over his chest, waiting for his heart to slow. People had been so helpful recently that her reaction had made his anxiety flare up more in shock than anything else. Matthias had been friendly, Jared had been sympathetic, and Sahil had been incredible in pretty much every way. Tam had to admit that Sahil especially had taken a huge weight off by being willing to act as research man for him. He’s a real good guy. Tam hadn’t really talked to him too much before this, but he’d have to change that.

The dryad came back a moment later, gesturing. “This way. Follow me.”

She took off again before he could react, and he hurried after, trying not to fall behind as she lead him into a plain corridor, with several doors off it. She shoved a door open, gesturing him into a large props workshop.

Joanne Cooper was shoulder deep in a prop wood stove that had apparently fallen apart. “So you’re Tam, huh. What happened to Ash?” she asked, tone rough.

Tam swallowed, mouth gone dry; he’d barely had a chance to enter the room before she’d begun to question him, and he couldn’t bring himself to come closer, hovering by the door. He forced himself to recall Sahil’s warning: don’t take it personally.

As quickly as he could—she didn’t seem like someone who wanted her time wasted—he stammered out an explanation.

“I don’t know a thing about witches,” Joanne said when he was done. She sounded mollified by the explanation, and more than a bit unhappy. “Most of them keep our folk out.”

“No, I… I know,” he said. “I’m… looking for strong allies. I want to get Ash back, and… I mean, I thought, Lithway is such a mythic figure in this town, and maybe, since you and the other crew here know Ash, maybe you could introduce me.”

The door behind him slammed open, making a thunderous crack as it hit the wall. Tam jumped, whirling to face it, but a thick dark fog was filling it, rolling in ominously. He backed up, trying to escape it, but it encroached on him regardless, billowing up to engulf him—

And then, abruptly, it changed shape, reforming in front of him into a humanoid figure made of shadow, tall and beautiful, arms open like the youth in the painting over the stage.

“Who’s getting introduced to Lithway, then?” Lithway asked. Despite their bombastic entrance, their voice was the same as Tam remembered—a soft, yearning tone. “Well? Speak up, boy.”

Tam stared, mind going blank. He hadn’t had time to get briefed, to be given any guide to how best to speak to Branwin Valley’s most well-known celebrity.

Yet here they were, in the flesh—or, well, what they had instead of flesh.

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[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 ]