Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 30

[And Now, the Conclusion!]

The laptop charger. Tam remembered it abruptly—remembered that two days before, he’d grabbed it impulsively, in some moment of prescience. It felt like a month ago, with everything that had happened since.

He shoved his arm in his backpack and found it with his fingertips at once, tossing it to Ash. He didn’t have time to get out any words, any explanation, because, at the same time—like some old-fashioned duel—Istem had slammed a hand into her pocket too. She was pulling her fist out clenched, swinging forward, fingers opening.

There was a throw blanket at the end of Ash’s bed. Desperate, he snatched it up, flapping it at her. “Leave us alone!” It was not the most threatening battle cry, but in the heat of the moment, it was all he could say.

The training had paid off—he’d guessed right that this was flammable sand. A wave of fire filled the room, but he’d swung the blanket quickly enough that very little of it washed back at him, and most of it spread toward her. He heard her let out a curse.

Behind him, Ash was scrambling toward an outlet on the wall.

He tried to stall her. “You think you got the right brother? You think so? I’ve got witch blood for sure! Don’t you think you might, accidentally, have got the younger one? What then?”

“Who cares?” she said. She sounded stressed. “You broke the contract. If I defeat you now, I have both of you—illegally or not.”

This time, when her hand came up, he caught a glint of larger stones between each of her knuckles and he tensed up. If what he remembered from Antoine was right, this was going to be a net of electricity—the blanket would do very little against this, if he didn’t hit all the stones away.

And, if he didn’t, it would likely fry both them and Ash’s computer, undoing whatever it was he was working on. He tried to remember what Antoine had said—

Scatter. Get out of an enclosed area. Be a moving target.

That was impossible here though.

He tensed, trying to get ready for pain, but before the stones left her hands, a voice shouted from behind her:

“Seriously?? You’re going to fall for their trick?”

She startled, confused, hand falling to her side as she turned on instinct—and for good reason. It was Ash standing behind her—no, Tam realized, the outfit was Tam’s own, and the body too, with his freckles hurriedly hidden behind makeup. But they looked enough alike that it didn’t much matter. Lithway stood there with their hands on their hips, a perfect imitation of Ash’s most scornful body language and expression.

Tam remembered abruptly that Lithway already knew Ash.

“I don’t know what they think they’re pulling, but I was in the bathroom,” Lithway said, still perfectly Ash in every way. “Like I’d try to escape! I want to become a witch, you know? Let’s run them off—”

“No,” Istem said. “Do you take me for a damn idiot?” And she flung the stones—

—At Lithway.

Tam caught his breath in terror, but the stones—and the sudden network of electricity between them—fell harmlessly through nothing at all. Lithway was gone as if they’d never been there, dropping their physical form at once and going fully insubstantial.

“An illusion?” she muttered, and he spared a moment to be relieved that Lithway’s secret was still safe. But she turned back at once, and it was clear that, not knowing for sure what had just happened, she wasn’t going to take any more chances with them.

Bella Istem raised both hands, feet shifting to brace herself in the doorway, hands beginning to weave a pattern. The stones glued onto her fingernails caught the light and Tam’s eyes went wide.

This was it. The big one. The ‘basically neurotoxin’. Antoine’s advice had been don’t be caught in it and if you are, keep your eyes and mouth closed, try not to breathe, run.

But she was between them and the only door.

“Got it!” Ash yelled in triumph, and without looking, Tam groped behind him and seized his arm.

There was no way they were going to get through this safely. Her gestures were coming to an end.

He was out of ideas and so he didn’t try to think. He reached for the gate—that constant, background sense of power—and tried to wrap that sheer power around the both of them, charging at her—

—Tam awoke to find himself mid-run a block away, stumbling. He didn’t remember anything from the moment he’d reached for power, but he and Ash were there together, holding hands. His bag was still over his shoulder, and Ash’s laptop was in his hand.

“Well, don’t stop running,” Ash said in exasperation. “We need to get someplace more crowded, fast.”

“What happened?” Tam managed, confused. He felt feverish—but good. Energized.

Maybe the most awake and alive he’d ever been.

“You showed off and turned us both into a goddamn rainbow of colors,” Ash said. He was grinning wildly. “I think you forcibly acclimatized yourself to the gate all at once? I’m kind of jealous. I don’t think I could do that yet, but now I want to try.”

“Oh,” Tam said, lacking any thoughts whatsoever on that yet. That was a problem for future Tam. “And we got away?”

“You shoved us past her while she was focused in filling the room with the spell. I think you might have shoved her into it a little, so that’s fun,” Ash said. “You dragged me out through the window like you were practically flying, then ran, and now, you’ve just stopped.”

“Weird,” Tam said. Then, “…It’s been a weird couple of days. Let’s keep going—I’ve set up a rendezvous point.”

Ash gestured with his laptop. “Lay on, MacDuff.”

“Please not with the bad luck,” Tam muttered, but they took off again.

Soon, they’d gotten back onto main streets, and Tam found himself relaxing. Based on everything he’d learned about her as a person, they were going to be too much damn work for her to keep up with, and she would let them go. It was a shame that other people were likely to still fall victim to her, or still currently were her victims, but… well, he knew a celebrity now. Maybe he could blacklist her on social media after this.

They made it back to the place he’d described, and found both Sahil and Lithway already there waiting. Sahil had transformed back, and was wearing some of Lithway’s shadows to hide his nudity. Tam felt a little weird about that, both kind of turned-on and kind of freaked out at once.

“Oh shit,” Ash told Sahil. “Nice look. Hi, Sahil.”

“What am I, chopped liver?” Lithway complained.

“No, you’re the star of the show,” Ash told Lithway, beaming. “You absolutely stole it with that impression.”

“I’ve seen how you are,” Lithway said, with a fond eyeroll.

Sahil said, “Ash… I was so worried.” He stepped forward a little, shadows rolling over him as Lithway adjusted their position to move with him. “Tam and I have just been wrecked.”

“I’ve been a bit upset myself,” Ash said. “I mean, my parents sold me, stolen away from everything I knew… learning about my heritage was good, but the rest was bullshit.”

“Tam’s been working night and day to get you back,” Sahil said.

The smile on Ash’s face faltered, and he nodded. “I… know. I believed he would. I had to. There was so little I could do for myself. I…” He looked up at Tam again, and the bravado, the excitement, had ebbed away. For once, Ash looked small, tired, a little afraid. “Thank you.”

“Oh, jeez,” Tam muttered. He tugged on Ash’s hand, dragging him in for a hug.

They stayed like that for a few moments before some tension in both their bodies seemed to ebb at once. Ash rubbed Tam’s back, and Tam wiped his tears in the crook of Ash’s neck, and they both let out a sigh as they stepped back again.

“I’m going to take Ash to a hideout I set up with Dupré,” Tam told them all, his voice mostly steady. “I imagine she’ll give up soon enough and run back through the gate.”

“And once I get this laptop charged and up again, she’ll keep running,” Ash said, patting it.

“What did you do?” Tam asked finally.

Ash shook his head. “I want to tell you—all of you, you deserve to know. But it was such a close call when I unplugged it to run, and with the gate energy hitting us, I need to confirm it’s not corrupted first. I don’t want to get everyone’s hopes up just to crush them.”

“Fair enough,” Lithway said. “And it draws out the dramatic tension nicely. Well, I’ve got to go and get ready for my performance tonight, but keep me updated.”

They were bowing out, Tam assumed, to let the stars of the piece have their final scene together. His heart swelled with affection, and he took two quick steps over to them, reaching up. “Thank you,” he said, and kissed them.

Lithway seemed a little surprised, but kissed back, a soft flicker of lavender and smoke in Tam’s mouth. Their arms, solid enough for this, came around him, and they gave him a firm, reassuring hug.

“Holy shit, really?” Ash said aloud beside Tam. “Jesus, Tam, get it.”

And then Lithway stepped back, blew a kiss to the other two as well, and vanished into the shadows entirely.

Tam let out a breath, turning to Sahil next—and then blanched, hauling his shirt off and handing it over. “Here.”  

Sahil took it automatically, hugging it to his stomach to cover himself, but didn’t stop staring at Tam. The expression on his face was odd—a little hurt, a little hungry, a little longing.

Shit, Tam realized. He’s into me.

“I… sorry, I just, they and I are—” He wanted to apologize, but didn’t want to at the same time. What he had with Lithway was good, he liked it, but at the same time, he liked Sahil too, didn’t want to hurt him. Didn’t want to lose him. “I…!”

And then Sahil’s expression changed into a pure, unrelenting stubbornness. “I mean, that’s fine,” he said. “Just, you know, I said maybe I’d let you kiss me after you got your brother back. You still up for that?”

“Uh,” Tam said, flummoxed. “Are you? Yes! I mean, yes. Please. I’ve had a crush on you forever. But, I mean—”

Sahil stepped closer, folded two fingers into Tam’s collar, and hauled him over for a kiss. It was warm and fast and hard, a demanding affair that slowly gentled into something like an apology, though for what, Tam wasn’t sure. “Text me,” Sahil said firmly, and changed back again, the t-shirt falling as his body twisted and writhed into a small puff of energetic fur.

He trotted away before Tam could answer, but despite it, he took a few steps forward and shouted a helpless explosion of thoughts at Sahil’s retreating back: “I like you and I don’t really want to dump Lithway before it’s over naturally and I understand if that’s a problem but I would like to work this out somehow please if there’s any way to do so!”

Sahil’s ears twitched, and he let out a quick bark before taking off at a faster run.

“Wow, Tam,” Ash said.

Tam let out an embarrassed wheeze and scrubbed his face with one hand before ducking to pick up his shirt. “It’s been a really weird few days. C’mon, let’s go.”

He led Ash through the maze of side streets to Rainier’s hideout, then inside. The common room was empty, and he saw numerous rooms shut and locked—presumably, where the vampires were hiding during the day.

But there were other rooms as well, normal open bedrooms for Rainier’s visitors, or donors, or, probably, thralls. Tam found one with two beds and shut the door behind himself, locking it after a moment. He trusted Rainier to keep his word, and the other vampires to not cross Rainier. He even trusted Istem not to follow them this far, if she’d been following them at all, since she wouldn’t want to cross Rainier with the history between them.

But he just wanted that extra feeling of security anyway.

Ash sat on a bed and plugged the laptop in beside it, holding it in his hands and starting to shake. “The moment of truth, Tam,” he said as it booted up.

Tam came to sit with him, leaning his shoulder up against his brother’s and watching the startup screens run. “Can you tell me now?”

“I think…” Ash signed in, then double clicked a folder on the desktop. The results were—odd, and for a moment, Tam thought it had failed and been corrupted after all. The file was no extension he recognized, and the information swam and moved in complex patterns.

But as he watched, it resolved into words, names, details.

“Yes!” Ash said. He grabbed Tam, hugged him hard. Even without knowing what was going on, Tam hugged back, desperate for the contact. “We did it! Tam, we did it!”

“We did what?!” Tam demanded, laughing despite himself, caught up in Ash’s elation.

Ash leaned back a little, beaming. “So,” he said. “As I got acclimatized to the gate, I started to awaken to my power. She couldn’t really test my capability until she took me through and immersed me, not in a short time like this, but I realized I was particularly reactive to electronics. Computerized things in particular. I started to be able to make my computer do little things, here or there. I couldn’t get you messages or anything, literally because there was no internet access, but… doing things on the computer myself, sure.”

“Okay,” Tam prompted.

“I started to find other things that reacted the same way and realized it was because they were spell containers designed to hold… to hold information, data,” Ash said, gesturing at the words on the screen. “As I did that, I began to find out what kind of information was stored there, both through stretching these new abilities and by prying a whole lot. So, I mean, I don’t know any spells yet, but… I decided to make a compatible holder on my computer to interpret it, and then transfer all that information from her storage stone to my computer.”

And,” Tam said, shaking him. “Please, just tell me!”

“These are all her contracts,” Ash said triumphantly. “It’s a spell she set up to store them and sort through the possible issues and loopholes to make it easier for her to minimize effort and maximize gain. It lists everyone she’s ever contracted, the terms, and how she’s able to cut corners.

Tam’s hands froze on Ash’s shoulders. And then he flung his arms around Ash again, squeezing him hard. “I’ve been in contact with a lawyer about this! You’re right, she’s fucked, she’s gonna have to go on the run—”

“I don’t know how many of these people we’ll be able to help,” Ash said. “But this is the best possible revenge I can think of.”

Happy to the point of helplessness, Tam leaned on Ash until Ash sank back on the bed, hugged him, held him as they laughed together.

They could hide out here for a few days as the lawyer put things in motion. Istem would run or get caught; either way, she was out of their hair. They could do all the things they’d wanted to: see Lithway’s play, get Ash back to the library he loved, eat cake together. Hell, they could do more: Become witches, take care of weredogs, play video games with a vampire. Date some damn good folks.

Everything was going to be okay.

[Stay tuned for an Epilogue that will go up tomorrow evening!]

[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 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 29

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

Tam took a moment to just lean on Lithway, taking a few deep breaths until the world became something reasonable again.

I can do this, he told himself.

Lithway was waiting, patient; Tam had feared briefly that they might be annoyed with his uncertainty, but they didn’t seem to be. But then, they hosted amateur performers at the Theatre of Dreams all the time. They must be very used to stage fright.

“Right,” Tam said firmly, more to convince himself of his own confidence than anything else. “Can you transform into someone with… authority? Someone she’s likely to pay attention to. And can you play that role if she comes and answers the door?”

“I certainly can,” Lithway said. “I made it a point in my younger years to become experienced with the head of the Council of Twilight—a witches’ organization,” they clarified, at Tam’s blank look. “Whether or not Istem’s officially a member, I think Auriano’s got reason to talk to her, given the bad reputation she’s giving witches, and Istem will not want that pressure brought to bear. If we’re lucky, she might even still believe it’s real later.”

“Great,” Tam said. He thought of the squishy cinnamon rolls in his bag. “Can you eat at all? I’ve got an anti-ward spell, but it’s food.”

Lithway shrugged. “Once transformed, I can eat the same as anyone. Otherwise, it’s a little different.”

“I’ll save it for just a minute, then,” Tam said. “I think we can use your skills over here first.”

Tam headed around the side of the building, trying to keep out of sight of any external windows. As Sahil’s intel had indicated, there was a ground-floor window there. It was latched shut from the inside, to keep the frame from sliding.

“Before, when you entered your room, you just sort of…dissolved into the lock to open it,” Tam murmured softly. “Can you do that here?”

“Certainly.” Lithway did so, obliging. “If she doesn’t come to the front door, shall I come back around and join you?”

“Please do,” Tam said. He ducked down, searching in the bushes until he saw a patch of light fur. “Okay, both of you, if we end up having to run, let’s meet up at…” He considered, then named a spot about three blocks from Rainier’s hideaway. It would be far enough away to be safe while they debriefed, without causing problems by having Sahil there, but close enough for him to take Ash to Rainier’s right after.

At least, he hoped so.

The patch of fur bobbed, and Lithway too nodded, so Tam rose with an exhalation and the two of them headed back to the front—then around the other side so Lithway could transform without being seen by Sahil or any passersby.

Once again, Lithway’s smoke bled into color and insubstantiality into the firmness of flesh, shuddering as the new form settled around them. The person they changed into appeared to be a rather neurotic older man in a loose-fitting suit covered in stars and jewels.

Tam raised his brows. “Ostentatious.”

“Quite,” Lithway said, in a gravelly, severe tone. They adjusted their bow-tie. “Well. Shall we begin?”

Tam leaned up and stole a kiss—feeling a little strange about doing so while Lithway was in this form, but wanting the comfort—then handed them a cinnamon roll.

Both of them ate rather quickly, without a chance to savor it. Tam could tell it was delicious, but couldn’t enjoy it anyway, not with his nerves. It sat heavily in his stomach.

“All right,” Tam said. “Let’s do this.”

He went back around to the other side of the house, where Lithway had unlatched the window for him earlier. He waited until he heard the doorbell, then waited longer, stomach tight, vibrating with tension.

“Ah. Miss Istem,” Lithway said in that gravelly voice. Tam could just barely hear it from around the corner. “There you are.”

That meant it was go time.

Tam pulled the bathroom window open as carefully as he could, sliding his body through and lowering himself to stand on the closed toilet seat. He could hear distant voices from here, though not the words being said, and he carefully sneaked out the open bathroom door to move away from where the voices were.

The first door he opened was an empty master bedroom, nothing in it but a fish tank, a bed, and a small, apparently portable altar. He refused to lose heart, moving on at once to a room at the end of the hall and opening that door too.

Ashton Lynes looked up from his laptop, alarmed—but his expression transformed a moment later to delight. “Tam…!” He looked exhausted, like he hadn’t slept for days, had barely ate, was completely wrung out.

Tam shushed him at once, straining his ears; he could still just barely hear the voices from the front hall. “C’mon,” Tam whispered. “I’m going to get you out of here.”

“I wasn’t sure you could,” Ash murmured back. His eyes flicked rapidly between his laptop and Tam, almost worried. “Just give me a second—”

“We don’t have time!” Tam managed to keep his voice down despite the urgency. He scurried over. “I’ve got a place for us to hide out while she loses interest. The bathroom door’s unlocked, you need to eat this cinnamon bun, hurry…”

“Just a second,” Ash insisted, though he took the bun and started cramming it in his mouth, not asking questions. Either he was too distracted by what he was doing, or he trusted Tam to know what he was about. “I’m about to—shit, shit, shit! The laptop battery’s going to go before it’s done—”

Tam took another look over his setup, and saw that Ash’s laptop was connected via USB to some sort of enormous crystal. It looked a lot like one of those new-agey Himalayan salt lamps. “Just take it with you!”

“I can’t,” Ash said, “obviously!”

There was no way it was obvious, but all Tam could assume is that Ash knew something about its magical properties that Tam himself didn’t. “We don’t have time,” Tam said. “C’mon, or this is all for nothing!” He began to head over to the bed.

Ash hissed a breath out through his teeth. “C’mon, just one more minute,” he said. “If this finishes before my computer dies, she’s fucked, Tam! It’ll be perfect!”

He heard a high pitched bark outside. Sahil. “Shit,” Tam said. “We don’t have time, Ash! She’s coming back!”

Tam grabbed onto Ash’s arm, fingers finding those moles, perfectly spaced for his fingertips. A jolt ran through him, and he froze, not understanding what he was feeling, or why.

And Bella Istem appeared in the bedroom doorway. She’d run back in a hurry, and her hair was flying out of its bun. She looked—

Normal. That was the weird part, Tam thought as he froze in shock. He wouldn’t have looked at her twice on the street, in a grocery store, anywhere. She was in her mid-sixties, wearing high-waisted jeans and a button-down shirt, with her hair gray streaked with brown. She was scowling at them, but it seemed out of place on a rosy pink face full of laugh lines.

“What are you doing here?” She began scolding at once, hands on her hips. “Hey, leave him alone, he wants to stay, all right?”

A con artist’s face, he reminded himself. He drew himself up. “Bella Istem, he’s not yours! You withdrew your protection on my family and kept my brother anyway! The contract is invalid!”

Something… reacted. The contract, he assumed; he felt it snap, and felt her react to it, her scowl deepening, eyes widening. She tensed, and Ash knew from his brief training with Antoine that she’d decided to attack.

Behind her, he saw a shadow approaching, shorter than before: presumably Lithway, neither in their own form, nor in the one they’d been wearing at the front door. Tam couldn’t make out the details, not with the dim hallway lighting and Istem between them, but it was somehow a very familiar silhouette.

He spared half a second to glance at Ash. Ash still wasn’t moving; Tam saw he’d darkened his screen to try to squeeze out the last bit of power, but the battery icon was showing empty regardless, about to shut down.

He could make Ash move when it did—but would that be too late?

[Please suggest an action in the Comments.
This will be the final turn in. Comment by 9 PM PST Oct 31.

You’re also welcome to say anything you (or he) WANT to happen
(example: I really want x to happen to Istem).
I can’t guarantee it occurring, but I want to hear!]

[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 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 28

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

“Thank you for the offer,” Tam told Rainier. “I really do need to get back tonight to get my plan underway, but I’m likely going to be back here as early as tomorrow. And if not, very soon! I owe you some blood and gaming time, okay?” He smiled, finding himself meaning it.

“Yep, I’ll be counting on it,” Rainier said. He yawned, showing teeth stained red with blood, then flopped back against the arm of the couch. “Show yourself out, okay? None of my guys’re gonna go after you, not now that I’ve picked you.”

Tam supposed that probably meant something to the vampires. “Thanks again,” he said. “Really nice meeting you.”

Rainier tilted his head back further so he could watch Tam from around the couch’s bulk. He had that quizzical look again. “Sure, it was great,” he agreed. “Good luck tomorrow!”

Waving, Tam headed out. The other vampires paid him no mind as he made his way through the maze of rooms out into the streets again.

When he was out, he pulled up the urban explorer’s guide and put a private pin on the map, choosing not to share it with the other ‘explorers’. If Rainier’s main base wasn’t marked, he wasn’t going to be the one to mark it—but it made it much easier for him to be able to figure out a route back here next time.

He sent Jared a quick text to reassure him he was fine, and another to the lawyer to ask about the ‘no protection’ loophole, and an email to Lithway to congratulate them on the opening night and say that he’d probably need them in the morning tomorrow to go rescue Ash.

And then, tired, Tam stumbled his way through the streets. This time, he was left relatively alone—he could only guess that it was another of those blood scents that Rainier had kept mentioning—though he tried to keep his attention focused on anyone who might be approaching regardless.

He stopped in on Beanheadings to grab himself an apple drink and a cookie as instructed. Matthias wasn’t working tonight, or at least, Tam didn’t see him; just as well, he decided, because he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to answer any questions.

It didn’t take too long after that for him to reach Sahil’s duplex. It felt particularly strange to be coming here alone, in the middle of the night, but that’s why Sahil had left him a key, after all.

He found the lock and got it open, stepping inside. “Uh… hi, Sahil! I’m here…”

There was a bark, and Sahil tumbled over to greet him, feet scrambling on the floors. Tam hoped Sahil would recognize him and acted accordingly, going down to one knee and holding a hand out to him. “Hi, sweetheart…”

Sahil licked all over his hand, barking frantically in between each swipe of his tongue. Abruptly remembering the neighbors, Tam hushed him gently. It was a strange moment, a feeling he didn’t like at all—he understood abruptly why Sahil had acted strange about the full moon specifically, and how he must have been making himself very vulnerable when he’d invited Tam here.

The dog he was petting was cute, but wasn’t Sahil. There was no hint of human intelligence in his gaze, unlike when he’d deliberately transformed before.

“You’re a good boy,” he told Sahil earnestly. “You’re a very very good boy. Now, let’s get settled down for bed, okay?”

He padded through the apartment with Sahil trotting along at his heels, well-behaved and friendly now that his initial excitement had subsided.

It didn’t take him long to find Sahil’s bathroom. Looking in the mirror, he saw that Rainier had left a bloody kiss mark on his neck. For a moment, he flustered, but then, practical, he just washed it off. After, he squeezed out a little toothpaste onto his finger and brushed his teeth that way, then headed to Sahil’s bedroom.

It was a small but cozy affair, with a full-size bed with a nice grey-and-black patterned duvet on top. A miniature set of stairs were placed at the base; as Tam watched, Sahil trotted up them onto the bed proper, turned around a few times, and curled up at the foot of the bed.

Tam reached out after a moment and patted him again, earning himself another few sleepy tail thumps. “Thanks for letting me stay,” he whispered, a little unsure. He pulled off his shirt and his pants, leaving his boxers on as he climbed in. He was going to need a change of clothes soon, but hopefully not until he could take Ash home with him.

He woke up the next morning to find a sleeping, naked Sahil curled up half on top of him, and he lay there a few tired moments trying to decide what to do about that. Finally, unsure of how Sahil would feel about the situation, Tam cleared his throat. “Sahil…?”

“Mm, Tam…?” Sahil stretched, leaning up against him and sniffing at him, sleepy and pleased sounding. He sniffed at Tam’s throat, squirming closer. “S’nice…”

“You’re still sleeping, I think.” Tam freed a hand and used it to ruffle Sahil’s hair. “Can you wake up a little?”

“Tam?” Sahil asked again, but this time he seemed more alert. He sat up abruptly, gathering the corner of the blankets up to cover himself, but seemed otherwise largely unconcerned with his own nudity as something occurred to him. “Tam, we found him!”

Tam’s heart skipped a beat. “You did? You found Istem’s hideout?”

Sahil nodded rapidly. “It’s a little place down right next to the Gate. I looked it up after I got back, and I guess it’s an Airbnb rental; she must have just grabbed it for a couple of days while picking up Ash. I think that can only be good news, right? Because she won’t have the place as deeply entrenched as one she already owns.”

“She was probably planning on being in and out as quickly as possible,” Tam agreed. “Shit, this is amazing! I could kiss you—”

He shut his mouth a little late around the words that had slipped out. Sahil blushed, then shoved at Tam’s shoulder. “Maybe if you still feel that way when you’ve got your brother back,” he said, his tone somewhat odd. “Go to the bathroom and get ready, okay? I can’t get up until you’re out.”

“Right,” Tam stammered, flustered and embarrassed. Easy enough to blame it on the strange few days he’d had, but he still very much felt the effects of nearly confessing his feelings to an old crush.

He grabbed his phone and scurried off to the bathroom.

All three of the people he’d messaged had responded: Jared with relief, the lawyer with an affirmative, and Lithway with a long email about how the performance had been met with marvelous applause and it seemed like a good omen for other successes; they would prepare to meet Tam the next day at a location of his choice.

Tam shivered, feeling the stress of the upcoming few hours starting to catch up with him, but headed back to the bedroom. Sahil had opened the door to indicate he was decent, although he was wearing just a bathrobe. He caught Tam’s strange look at once. “Since I’ll be playing scout for you as a dog, it doesn’t make sense for me to get dressed just to undress again right away,” he said dryly. “Come here, let’s get out a map and I’ll show you what I learned.”

Together, they sat and pored over the map to the apartment Sahil and the other dogs had found. Tam pinned it, and calculated several paths from Istem’s place to Rainier’s, based on what seemed like it would be quick, what might be unexpected, what would be likely to take them through crowds where they could lose her, and so on.

And then there was nothing they could do but act. Sahil transformed again, shaking the robe off and wagging his tail—looking up this time at Tam with intelligence in his eyes. “Right,” Tam said. “I’m just going to write Lithway to meet us, and we’ll head on down.”

Sahil barked acknowledgement.

Together, they headed down through the Uncanny Valley, watching as the more regular shops transformed into stranger and stranger places, both in terms of the buildings themselves getting more twisted and unnatural, and in terms of the sorts of signs in the windows. The strangest ones weren’t the ‘curiosity shops’ full of charms, nor the ‘taxidermy’ shops full of necromantic animals moving through tableaus, but the ones that clearly sold something, but had no signs at all.

Tam fought the urge to look them up on his map. They weren’t going to be relevant to his mission, and he needed to stay focused. That was hard enough to do this close to the Gate—he could feel a pressure in his head, a constant background hum that seemed to be echoing through his blood.

It felt like it was calling to him.

Sahil stopped abruptly, and Tam realized they were there—that the small triplex in front of them, two doors at the front and one at the side, matched the address.

No sooner had he realized this than Lithway flowed out of a nearby alley. They had pulled their smoke in close and were wearing regular clothes, a turtleneck and slacks, so that other than the uniform, smoke-like shades of their skin, eyes, and hair, they looked much more human. It would probably fool a casual, passing glance.

Tam swallowed. His heart was pounding; they were going to do this. “Sahil,” he said, “can you go around the house to watch Istem’s door? Lithway and I need to plan a little in private.”

Sahil raised a paw, and waited. At first, Tam didn’t realize why, but when Sahil didn’t move, he bent down and took it. Sahil’s mouth lolled open in a smile, and he shook a paw very seriously, then turned, trotting around the corner and out of sight.

As Tam rose, Lithway leaned in close, sliding an arm around Tam, as if aware of how tense he was. Tam drew a breath, and then sagged into the warm curve of Lithway’s arm, inhaling their lavender scent and trying to calm down.

“Well?” Lithway murmured. “What do you want? I brought some makeup with me to cover the freckles if you need me to look more like your brother than you, or… who else, what else, do you need me for? I’m yours to command.” They sketched a bow.

[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 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 27

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

As far as trades with a vampire went, ‘giving him your blood’ was not exactly unexpected. And Tam had Jared as a living example that someone could give Rainier their blood and be relatively all right the next day. Tired, maybe, but that was a fairly reasonable trade-off too.

Tam came around and slid onto the couch, giving Rainier a smile. It seemed to surprise him; for a moment, those cold blue eyes just went round—and then he was beaming back, wide, showing sharp teeth.

“I think it sounds entirely fair,” Tam said honestly. “I wouldn’t ask you to help me if I didn’t help you too.”

“See, that’s good,” Rainier said cheerily. “You understand, right? It’s a lot easier when we’re both on the same page with these things.” He’d put the controller down and scrambled closer, hands planted on the couch, gazing up into Tam’s face. “So? You want to negotiate, then?”

“Just a little,” Tam said. “I’m going to try to rescue my brother tomorrow, so however much I give tonight, can you try to stop at the point when it won’t leave me totally exhausted tomorrow? I don’t mind coming back an extra night in return.”

Rainier considered, then shrugged, shuffling his hands forward until they were on Tam’s thighs instead. “Sounds fair to me,” he said. He smelled nice somehow; his cologne was more reminiscent of apple pie than old spices. “So what do you need?”

Tam blushed a little, glancing aside to watch Link idle on screen. “You should go to menu,” he blurted out. “One of those midboss skeleton giants pops out around that area when it’s night.”

Surprised, Rainier leaned back on his heels. Then he grabbed the controller, hit the menu button, and slammed his hands back down on Tam’s thighs, apparently excited. “You play too! New price, when you visit to give me blood, help me find shrines!”

He didn’t mean to burst into laughter, but he couldn’t contain it either. “That’s not a price, that’s an incentive!”

That reaction seemed to confuse Rainier as well; he tilted his head left and right, more like a confused dog than Sahil had ever been. “Well, good. Convenient! Good. We’ll have fun, then, you and I.”

“I hope so,” Tam said. He didn’t even have to try to let warmth seep into his voice. There was something cute about this strange small vampire lord, and maybe it was just the charisma that Jared had warned him about, but it wasn’t exactly effort to drape his arms around Rainier’s hips as Rainier climbed into his lap.

Rainier smirked at him.

Tam brought things back to business. “So. I’m not going to need you guys to go against her directly—I’m almost certainly going to go after her during the day, ’cause I don’t really want to face a Malificar at night. You said one night of feeding for information, right? Or two, I guess, since you won’t take much tonight. What can you tell me about the witch Bella Istem?”

Rainier rolled his eyes. “Ugh, Bella,” he said. “We’ve met. I fought her once, it wasn’t fun and she got away, but I got my thrall back. She’d gone after him because he had witch blood, and I guess she made some bogus agreement, but I had a more solid legal hold on him since he was my thrall and she gave up contesting it when I went after her.”

“You fought for him back?”

“Witch blood is tastier,” Rainier said with a shrug. “Even just in potentia.”

That was somewhat interesting information; Tam filed it away. “Anything useful about how she fights?”

“Living is understandably important to her. Getting by without making too much trouble for herself,” Rainier said, tone thoughtful. “I mean, I get it, you get to a certain age and power and it’s like, you’ve got your passions and everything else is hard work. I’d like to see her run out of town for good, if that’s in your plans.”

Tam held his breath unintentionally, waiting to see if Rainier would ask him about those plans—if he’d bring that force of charisma to bear, and if the geas would hold.

But Rainier, it seemed, didn’t care. Maybe because he wasn’t being asked to risk any of his people, it didn’t even seem to occur to him to learn more.

“To that end,” Rainier added, “I guess the key thing to keep in mind is that she’s a sadist and she knows what she wants, but if you, in particular, are too much work, she’ll drop you and your brother. Cut her losses and just go after easier prey for a while.”

“I’d like her not to go after any prey at all.”

“Mmm, baby boy, that’s a cute idea, it’s sweet,” Rainier said, and put a palm on Tam’s cheek, patting. “But that’s not how things work down here. You know that, right? Or you wouldn’t be in my house at all, right?”

“Right.” He had to admit it, though it still didn’t feel great. Well, maybe he could find a way to get her blacklisted after. If nobody took her deals, she’d be out of luck anyway.

“What else?” Rainier pushed. “Just the info?”

“I don’t know,” Tam admitted. “Depending on if I steal my brother away and she wants to go after us, I might need to lie low somewhere safe, somewhere that civilians won’t get hurt. Your place sounds good to me, if you can promise us safe hiding here.”

Rainier considered, then shrugged. “It’s gonna be the same price whether or not you use it,” he said easily. “Either way I’ll be opening up my place to you. So like I said, twice a week for a few months—say, the number of months equal to the number of days or nights you decide to stay. Like, three months if you stay three days. Sound fair?”

“Sounds very fair,” Tam agreed. “Let’s plan on three days, and I might have to extend it if we actually make use of it. And… that’s it, but I need to give you a warning. She was supposed to have put protection on my family and I to avoid attack. I have some evidence that she removed it at some point, but I don’t know for sure. There’s the possibility that, when you bite me, it might bite back.”

“Oh, baby, no no no,” Rainier said, laughing lightly. “It’s definitely gone. You smell like you’ve just been peeled. Someone under protection has their own blood scent we can pick up. Someone who was never under it smells different from someone who previously was. You smell real fresh, like you’ve been sous-vide and the chef just popped you open to cook. It’s the good stuff.”

Tam blinked. “Are you sure?”

“Sure enough to bite you,” Rainier said cheerily. “Guess you’ll find out in a moment.”

“Guess I will.” Tam swallowed, his heart rate picking up a little as he thought about what he was about to do, but he tilted his head back and to the side regardless.

Rainier licked a warm swipe up Tam’s neck, making a little noise of pleasure at the taste of his skin. “You got witch blood too, huh?” he mused aloud, and then bit.

True to his word, it didn’t exactly hurt. There was a sting, a bit like the jab of a needle at the doctor’s, and then a rush of warmth and pleasure as Rainier began to suckle at his throat. It felt like getting a hickey, warm and wet and a little painful and actually pretty good, and there was another thrill underneath it—the thrill of feeling his life being drawn out, the sound of Rainier swallowing it down, the press of his body against Tam’s where he was sitting in his lap.

It wasn’t quite sexual—not yet, anyway, but it was definitely already feeling like foreplay. Tam could very much feel how it could quickly get there, the erotic pull of lips on his body and skin, the pressure and closeness…

He was just about to start squirming under Rainier’s thighs when Rainier lapped at the wound, pressed against it hard with his tongue, and then pulled back, smirking, his lips stained red.

“Oh, you liked that,” he said, smugly. “Good. It tastes so much better when someone does! Discomfort has its own flavor, you know?”

“Does it?” Tam asked breathlessly, a little dizzy.

“It does.” Rainier slid back, putting a little space between them. “As a man of my word, I stopped after a few gulps, so you’ll be fine tomorrow. Just have some juice and a cookie before you sleep tonight, all right?”

“I’ll, uh, keep that in mind,” Tam said.

Rainier grinned again. He seemed pleased as pie, the metaphorical cat with the canary. “Is tonight one of the nights you needed to add to the protection list? I’d let you, though with the cost as planned. We can play games, if you do!”

Tam let out a slow breath, forcing himself to focus more. As tempting as the offer might be under other situations—it wasn’t as though the cost itself was particularly bad—he wasn’t sure if it would be the best place for him to stay tonight.

But where was the best place? He could go back to Lithway again—they were sure to be full of energy after a show, and probably in the mood to celebrate. Sahil had given him a key and offered him the bed; plus, that would mean he could get all the weredog news first thing in the morning. Antoine had kept the offer to crash at his home open, and he could even go home and sleep in his own bed, if he felt ready to confront his parents.

Wherever he went, he’d need to be able to think about solidifying his final plans, though. As soon as he heard his brother’s location tomorrow, he’d need to start pulling pieces into place, because tomorrow was the final day before Istem could pull Ash through the gate. He’d text the lawyer tonight, he reminded himself, confirm that what he’d learned about the protection being withdrawn was a loophole, and then… just have to act as soon as he heard back.

But other than those last couple of confirmations, which were out of his hands anyway? It seemed as though he had all the information he was going to get.

[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 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]

To The Victor & Empty Vessels Giveaways

Hey guys! My fantastic publisher of LGBTQIA+ romance, Less Than Three Press, is doing a Goodreads giveaway for their upcoming November Releases — and I’ve got two things in there! If you want a chance to win ebook versions of the anthology To The Victor or my novel Empty Vessels, read on!

How to enter:

1. Get a Goodreads account or, if you already have one, log in
2. Join the Less Than Three group by going to this page and clicking ‘join group’ right under the main icon.
3. Go to either of the two links below and comment to the page for one entry!
4. Go to the book itself linked in the entry and shelve it (click the Want To Read button) for a second entry.

To The Victor – Goodreads Giveaway

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To The Victor is an anthology of queer knights facing down terrifying tournaments and perilous quests in the name of love. Learn more about it here!

My story, Debating the Dragon, is about a lady knight who goes on a quest to rescue an immortal princess from a tower, but ends up having to match wits with a dragon–a very flirty lady dragon–to do so.

Enter the Giveaway here!

 

Empty Vessels – Goodreads Giveaway

emptyvessels400

Empty Vessels is a m/m paranormal romance. Save some Halloween candy for this one.

Keith, a young man with psychic powers he never wanted, is haunted by the ghost of a man who died to save him and sees monsters hidden among human beings. But now the monsters need help, and it’s up to Keith to save them.

Enter the Giveaway here!

(On a side note, Empty Vessels honestly is my favorite bit of writing I’ve ever done. I’m extremely excited to share it with you all!)

 

If you like these, consider checking out Less Than Three press’s other November giveaways too (can I recommend Hold Fast The Knight, by my good friend Lotus Oakes?).

And as always, you can learn more about my books right here!

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 26

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

If Antoine said he could handle the spell’s backlash, all Tam could do was trust that he was right. “All right,” he said quietly. “I do have a few questions, then… let’s do it.”

Antoine spread his hands with a smile. “Fire away,” he said.

“Are there any other spells you suggest I get put on me?” Tam asked slowly. “Like… night-vision muffins?”

“Not that I can hook you up with before you head out tomorrow, and I’d suggest not asking other witches in case they owe her anything. I wish I could, but geases are… not easy,” Antoine said apologetically. “I’ve depleted a lot of my personal reservoir and I’m not the sort of person who keeps batteries tied up in my house.”

Tam felt a shiver of alarm. “Is that something I’m likely to come across in her house? Or… what else, actually? Does she have guardians or familiars, or other home defenses?”

“She’ll have guardians in her more permanent hideouts on the other side of the Gate, but probably not there,” Antoine said. “As for the others… I don’t know. She does have a turtle familiar she lives with, but she takes him with her, and didn’t have anything else when I was there. Didn’t need to; she stayed in, running all sorts of tests on me, and I wasn’t able to run.”

So it was still a possibility that she might leave something behind if he managed to lure her out. “Would she have put any spells on Ash? A geas?”

“Again, not likely, especially not if she’s saving up for the things she’s going to do to try to open his magical channels, not to mention trying to keep him ‘clean’ for that, but… not impossible either.”

Tam nodded. Antoine might know a lot about what happened with his own situation, but Istem stole plenty of people. It didn’t mean it’d be the same way every time. “Just… one more question. Will it hurt?”

“The geas?” Antoine smiled softly. “I tried to make sure it won’t, anyway. Have you ever had, you know. Executive dysfunction problems?”

He felt himself make a face. “…High school was rough.”

“I hear you,” Antoine said. “It’ll feel like that. You might have the full intention to say something but, bam, your voice isn’t going to obey. Like when you want to get up and do something but just keep refreshing Twitter instead.”

“At least it’s a familiar sensation,” Tam said dryly. “All right. I think I’m ready.”

Antoine lit the candle on the cake; doing so seemed to take something out of him, leaving him looking abruptly tired. Tam thought for a moment that he felt the spell, an expectation in the air, a tension wrapping around him. “I’m going into the back until you’re done,” Antoine said, perhaps to both keep the secret entirely secret and to hide the backlash.

Tam waited until he was gone, then leaned forward. “I will never talk about Lithway’s secrets with anybody but Lithway,” he murmured, and blew the candle out.

That sense of expectation grew tighter. He picked up the fork and began to eat.

It sank into him; he felt it spreading through him, a piece of pressure in the back of his mind. He imagined he would get used to it in time, but he did wonder how long it would take.

At least the cake was fucking delicious.

When he finished the piece, he cleared his throat and raised his voice. “Antoine? You okay?”

A heartbeat.

And then Antoine came out. He still looked tired, but he seemed otherwise just fine. “She’s gone and done it,” he said, tone amazed. “She must have withdrawn the protection on you to cut corners. I guess she thought you wouldn’t notice.”

Tam smiled tightly. “Good,” he said. “…Well, I’ve got a little time to kill before I have to run off and meet some vampires. I don’t suppose you can show me a little of how she casts spells so I know what to prepare for? I sure wouldn’t have guessed you cast with baked goods.”

“Sure.” Antoine still seemed flummoxed. “She mostly uses mineral items, so watch out for decorative stones she has lying around or for her to throw a handful of dust at you. I’ll show you some of her attack patterns—without any juice behind it, of course. C’mon to the back.”

“Thanks,” Tam said. More determined than ever, he followed Antoine.

The next few hours passed in a haze of stances, gestures, and methods of throwing that started to blur together very quickly, though they were repeated enough that he thought he’d more or less nailed down what was likely to be a defensive wall, what was fire, what was lightning, and what was going to be something Antoine described as ‘basically fucking neurotoxin’. By the time they were done, he actually had to hurry to get to the restaurant that he’d agreed to meet Jared at—an old English pub called The Boggart’s Bottom.

Despite being a little late, he arrived there before Jared did, and waited. He began to get nervous after another ten minutes, but it wasn’t long after that until he got a text: Held up. Eat on your own, I’ll grab something on the way.

It still wasn’t reassuring, but what could he do? He ordered himself a fish and chips, and was just finishing up when Jared entered, looking around a bit before spotting him and coming over.

Jared had changed more than Tam had in the last year. Gone was the artfully tousled bleach-blond hair; he’d gone back to his natural brunet, cut short and professional. Gone, too, were the band t-shirts that they’d both favored and Tam still did, in favor of a nice button-down over slacks.

Other than the style update, he wasn’t looking great—he was always pale, but he seemed paler now, with dark circles under his eyes. Tam thought he might be sick, but hesitated on asking. If he was, then he was pushing through it to help Tam now.

“Hey,” Tam said. “Long time no see. Everything okay?”

“It’s fine,” Jared said. He sat down across from Tam. “Really sorry about being late. I didn’t get any sleep last night and—look, I donated some blood in exchange for getting you in. I thought I was doing fine, but passed out for a nap and slept through my alarm.”

Tam flustered, finishing his coke. “Really sorry to ask you to do that—”

“Nah, man. Like I said, I have a sister. If anything happened to her I’d want everyone I knew to pull out the stops.” He glanced over his shoulder. “I grabbed McD’s on the way, so if you’re about done…? We can get going. He’s a capricious dude, and I don’t want to keep him waiting.”

“Yeah,” Tam said. He rose, heading to the stand at the front to pay. “I, uh, I’d love to catch up with you, but…”

“But maybe after your brother’s back? Sure. Let’s do… something.” Jared waved a hand, a little uncomfortable. “Sorry about the radio silence. I know things got a bit weird there for us.”

Tam winced a bit, waiting for his card to be handed back. “A bit. Yeah. I mean I didn’t contact you either.”

“Well, we’re both avoidant as shit until pushed,” Jared said. He reached over, squeezed Tam’s arm briefly, then let go.

Tam put his wallet back, then shrugged again, helplessly. “So what can you tell me about Dupré?”

Jared headed out, walking briskly. “First of all, he’ll definitely look differently than you’re expecting. Second, his mood swings on a dime. He likes to be entertained and he likes to not work for it. If he gives you his word on something, he’ll keep it—he wouldn’t stay in power this long otherwise—but he’s dangerous. He’s also really…”

It seemed like Jared was having trouble finding a word to use. “Really?”

“Charis…matic? He’s… I don’t want to say a flirt, because that implies he’s nice about it. Don’t forget you’re literally food to him, I guess is what I want to say.”

“Sorry I don’t have your natural defenses against a guy’s charisma,” Tam said, and heard it come out more sharply than he intended. Maybe  he wasn’t as much over things as he’d thought he was, he realized, chagrined.

“Turns out I don’t have those after all,” Jared said. He rounded a corner. “Here, they’re meeting up with us—”

A man stepped out of an alley, and Tam realized, to his surprise, it was his would-be mugger.

They both stared at each other. Then the mugger vamp snorted, rolling his eyes. “Fucking figures,” he said. “Guess you’re reserved for the boss now.”

“You know each other, Jake?” Jared asked.

“He tried to attack me yesterday,” Tam said, still a bit stunned.

“It’s not personal, warmblood,” ‘Jake’ shot back. “You’re walking around smelling like someone’s peeled the outside off you, what do you expect to happen?”

“What does that mean?” Tam demanded.

Jake didn’t answer, trotting off down the alley. Jared took Tam’s arm, guiding him along after.

They traversed a winding maze of alleys until they came out in the old district. It had been the red light district back in the early days the town was settled, long before the Valley had opened up and dragged it downhill. Now it was just a series of old, red-brick buildings with their many windows boarded over.

“That’s as far as you go,” Jake told Jared. “Boss wants to see him alone.”

Jared didn’t look happy about this, but stopped walking. “Sorry,” he told Tam. “If I go with you, they’ll turn us both away.”

“It’s fine,” Tam said, with more bravery than he felt. “He promised to see me, and you said he keeps his promises.”

Jake turned and started walking again, leaving them no more time to say anything, and no chance to address the strangeness between them. Tam hurried after, a little worried despite his confident words that Jake had lied, and he was going to be attacked—but Jake didn’t turn back to him, and didn’t say a word to him, just lead him past a group of people sitting around playing MarioKart in a big open room, and up the stairs to a closed door. He knocked twice. “Fresh meat’s here,” he called, unreassuringly, and pushed the door open.

Tam didn’t mean to hesitate, but did anyway. It didn’t matter; Jake gave him a hard shove in the back and he took three stumbling steps into the room, hearing the door shut behind him at once.

A young man—appearing to be a little younger than Tam, maybe still a teenager—tilted his head against the back of the couch to look at him upside down, tearing his gaze away from where he was playing the new Legend of Zelda game on the enormous TV in front of him.

The boy—who must be Rainier Dupré—was pretty, almost delicate. He couldn’t have been much more than five feet tall, with overgrown wavy pale blond hair framing a shockingly pale white face. His ice blue eyes were lit up with an intense curiosity.

“Oh, hello!” he said brightly. “You’re Jared’s high school friend, right?” He scooted aside to make room on the couch, patting the spot beside himself. “Come here and let me have a drink from you! You want help, right? So you’ll need to be my snack for a while.”

“That’s, uh,” Tam stammered. “This is really sudden? I mean, can you give me a rough guideline of what ‘a while’ means??”

Rainier rolled his eyes. “Ummm. If you just want to talk, I’ll just drink tonight,” he said, in a tone as if he was granting Tam a real favor. “If you want to make use of my place or my people, twice a week for a few months, depending on how much you need from me. If you want me, personally, to go out and do something for you? Twice a week for a year. Or whatever! We can work out the details when I hear what you want, I guess.”

Still, Tam hesitated. He opened his mouth to speak again.

But Rainier interrupted. “I promise it doesn’t hurt, and you have to know that I’m not letting you walk away without giving me blood at least tonight, so stop being such a big baby and come here.” He patted the couch again, a bit more pointedly.

[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 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 25

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

It didn’t take long for Lena to finish ushering the kids off the ice, and chatting briefly with the occasional parent. When they’d left, she skated over, then hopped out of the door in the boards, clattering across to sit with them and put the guards on her skates.

“You must be Tam,” she said warmly. “Sahil’s told me so much about you.”

Tam was taken slightly aback by how friendly a greeting it was—let alone by the idea that Sahil had been talking about him beyond the situation with his brother. “Yeah,” he said. “He, uh, said he explained the situation?”

She nodded, leaning her arms on her thighs. “I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. I’ve heard so much about him from Sahil too, although I wish the breakup had been a little more—”

“Lena, please,” Sahil said in a tone of horror. “We’re both adults, it was a mutual decision.”

“I know, I know.” Lena sighed with a hint of irritation, then straightened again, spreading her empty palms to Tam. “So, how can I help you out?”

He nodded awkwardly. No need to throw in anything complex, he decided, just stick to the plan he’d already run past Sahil. “Mostly, I need to make sure I know where my brother is,” he said. “I’ve got a map that shows where his phone went, and I’ve got pictures he took along the way. If any of your group could use that to sniff around,  narrow it down to an exact building, and maybe figure out if he were still in there, that’d be amazing. Other than that, the only thing I’d ask for is… if I end up rescuing him during the day, would it be possible to have a sentry around to bark and alert me if the witch who took him is coming back?” He was fidgeting, and tried to hold himself still. “I don’t want to put any of your friends in danger, but… any help you can offer would be immeasurable. And, of course, if there’s anything I can do for you in return, I’d be happy to.”

“I don’t mind being the sentry,” Sahil put in.

“I’ve only got his phone and computer cord with me,” Tam continued apologetically. “But I can go home and get something to get his scent—”

“I, uh, have one of Ash’s shirts,” Sahil said awkwardly. “So it’s fine, you don’t need to.”

Tam looked at Sahil askance; Sahil hadn’t told him that. He wasn’t able to make eye contact, though, not with Sahil staring at Lena instead of him.

She tapped the back end of her skate guard against the floor thoughtfully. “I can at least ask who’d be willing to go track this guy down,” she said. “That seems harmless enough. You ever dog-sat before?”

“Yeah, I’ve dog-sat for friends,” Tam said, confused. “I mean, I love dogs, so…”

Lena seemed to roll her eyes briefly. “Well, some of our newer members have problems sometimes where they get confused and scared to find themselves alone at home on their first few full moons. They wake up the next day to find they’ve torn the place up in a case of separation anxiety from themselves, pretty much. If you’re willing to meet up with them and won’t get weird at them about joining them for an overnight, they’ll have an easier time adjusting. It’s hard to find people to do that who know what they’re getting into but aren’t worried about getting bitten.”

“Oh, no, I don’t… particularly mind,” Tam said, flustered and pleased. “I’d be happy to help out.”

“It’s a trade, then. I’ll get back to you on that and I’ll talk to my folks. Sahil, do you mind being the point of contact if you’re going to go along on the search?”

“No, it makes sense,” Sahil said. “Be happy to.”

She grinned, then held out a hand to Tam. Tam shook it, startled and pleased.

“Then, if that’s all, my next class will be coming in fifteen and I’ve got to get a snack first or I’ll die. Text Sahil if you need anything from me.”

“I’ll do so,” Tam said, rising. “Thank you again.”

“Sure, don’t mention it. Hope we find him.”

They headed out together for the bus stop. Tam wrestled with the idea about asking about the shirt, but wasn’t sure how to bring it up, so he eventually decided against it.

Sahil dug around in his bag for a moment, then held his house keys out. “Here,” he said.

Tam looked at him in confusion, though he took them anyway. “Uh, sure. What’s this about?”

“I was thinking, um.” Sahil waved a hand. “You’re going to be out late with the vampires, and maybe you’ve got plans already, but if you need a place to crash tonight after, my bed’s going to be free anyway. You can give them back to me tomorrow if you end up not coming by.”

“Thanks,” Tam said, pleased and feeling a bit shy at the offer. Sahil really was too nice. He put the keys into his bag. “How’ll you get in, though?”

Sahil wrinkled his nose. “I got out the window one night,” he said dryly. “Woke up naked in the back yard. Ever since then I’ve kept spares buried in my yard.”

“Oh wow,” Tam said. The less said about that the better. “Okay, cool. If I don’t come by I’ll text you so you don’t worry in the morning.”

“Great,” Sahil said, fidgeting. “Do you mind handing Ash’s phone off, also? I’ll want to get together with folks to match the map up to the pictures before we take off to try to track him down.”

Tam dug it out. “No problem. I don’t think it’s going to be much more use to me right now, and if anyone texts him you can just let me know.” He showed Sahil how to unlock it.

Thus prepared, they headed their separate ways when they arrived back downtown in the Valley; Tam stayed on the bus another few stops to get that much closer to Loaf Portions. By the time he got off, he could see the writing on the sign, the painted steam over the rolls curling into hearts.

The door jingled as he went in, and Antoine came out of the back at once. “Hey, wel—Tam! Good to see you. How’s it going?”

“Pretty good, I hope,” Tam said. There weren’t any other customers in the shop, which made this easier. Trying not to eye the cakes in the display—he could feel the lurking depression over how the lack of cake the day before had been tied to his brother’s loss—he leaned on the counter. “A plan’s coming together, anyway.”

“Any way I can help, I will,” Antoine said. “All previous offers open. Hang on one moment.”

He vanished into the back room again, then emerged with two things—a bag with three cinnamon rolls inside, and a slice of cake on a plate, an unlit candle sticking out of it.

Tam blinked. He was pretty sure Antoine wasn’t reading his mind, but it was still a bit uncanny. “Uh…”

“The cinnamon rolls contain the anti-ward spells,” Antoine said, handing him the bag. “Don’t worry about them getting smushed in your bag, it’s all in the flavor, not the look. You and whoever you’re going with will want to eat some before heading in—it should make you invisible to her wards. You don’t have to eat a whole one if you need to split it between more than three people, but the more a single person eats, the longer it’ll last. I’d advise not eating them until you’re gonna head in, just in case.”

Hopefully Lithway could eat them, but then, Lithway might not even trigger wards. They were a shadow, the monster’s monster. “Thanks,” he said. “Does that mean the cake’s the, uh, geas?”

“Right,” Antoine said. “I’ll light the candle, you’ll say aloud what you want geased—in this case, that you can’t say that person’s secret. Then, you’ll blow the candle out and eat the cake. It’ll take effect once you’ve started eating.”

“Thanks. But Antoine,” Tam said, frowning down at the slice. “If she’s got that protection on me, will it backlash on you if you place the geas?”

Antoine sighed. The question didn’t seem to surprise him—rather, he seemed like he’d been hoping Tam wouldn’t ask. “It might,” he said. “I’m willing to take that risk. I’ve got enough counterspells on me that it won’t outright kill me and, seriously, I want to help you with this.”

Tam bit his lower lip. “So if it doesn’t hit you with backlash, will that mean I’m not protected by her magic?”

Antoine’s eyes widened. “Shit, do you think she cut corners? I mean, that’d be just like her, she’ll always save her own energy when she can, and I guess most people who fail to get protected in an attack out here aren’t usually alive to come back and complain that she didn’t hold up her end…”

“I think it’s possible,” Tam admitted. “If she’s got protections up, they’re ones nobody has been able to sense so far. Is that even possible?”

“Sure. Usually people make it a big Keep Your Hands Off mark because it’s easier to warn people off than spare the energy every time someone’s attacked. But that doesn’t mean they have to warn that someone’s protected. A real sadist might want to keep it subtle so they’d have to excuse to harm others.” Antoine gently pushed the plate of cake closer, then pulled out a box of matches. “Anyway, it’s a risk I’m willing to take. But if you have any other questions for me, you might want to ask them first because, if you are protected, I’m not gonna be in great shape after.”

[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 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 24

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

The urge to ask Sahil more about weredogs in general rose, but Tam quashed it quickly. He knew he wouldn’t be entirely selfish if he did ask—anything he could know at all might contribute to finalizing his plan—but he’d already embarrassed himself a little in front of Sahil, and Sahil was, he hoped, a friend. He didn’t want to get too invasive about things.

“I guess I could use a second opinion on my plan so far,” he said, and was a little dazzled by Sahil’s answering smile. “A lot of it’s pretty up in the air, but…”

He ran over it in all its vagueness: using the weredogs to confirm the location, getting information from the vampires and seeing what more they could do or what they’d offer tonight, and taking Lithway along for help on the actual rescue mission. “I’m expecting a call from a contracts lawyer Lithway got in contact with, so I’m hoping some element of whatever comes up can tie her up in business,” he admitted. “And I guess we’d need to lie low after I get him out, but I might ask the vampires about that too. They’ve probably got some pretty strong protections, and I’d be worried about who else might get hurt if I laid low elsewhere. I can’t decide that until I meet them tonight, though.”

“Probably,” Sahil agreed. “It sounds like a pretty solid plan for something where none of the key details are worked out yet.” His lips quirked in a small smile. “I guess whatever you think Lithway can help with involves that secret?”

“Probably,” Tam said, as vaguely as possible—half because he didn’t want to say more, and half because he hadn’t quite decided yet how that shape-shifting skill could fit in, if at all. “Actually, relatedly, do you know if there’s any way I could keep a secret from the vampires if they tried to compel me that’s not a geas?”

“Sorry,” Sahil said. “I don’t think anything else would work except being forced to forget it, and that’d make it pretty useless as part of a plan.” He considered, swallowing the last of his coffee. “I can’t speak too much to the plan except the dogs part, but it sounds pretty good to me. It’s a really small way to make use of us—keeps us out of the danger zone. I was expecting, like, you wanting a gang of angry dogs to make her give Ash up and withdraw the contract.”

“Do you think that’d work?”

“I mean, most people don’t want to face down a gang of angry dogs,” Sahil said. “But Lena would probably be harder to convince for something like that.”

Tam nodded. “Right. Any suggestion on how I talk to her?”

“Just keep in mind that the safety of our group is her main concern,” Sahil said. “She doesn’t want us to get a bad reputation, and she doesn’t want to lead us to be hurt. I mean, we’re still lycanthropes, though, so us getting hurt  is not… easy. And… don’t mention the vampires to her.”

Not quite able to keep from raising his brows, Tam asked, “Not at all?”

“They hate each other, Tam. If the vampires are in on the plan, she’ll want to be out. If she’s in, Dupré will probably want to be out. Or they’ll ask way higher payment.” Sahil made a face. “As far as I’m concerned, make use of us both, just don’t go around telling people. They may suspect you’ve been in contact with the other from the smell, but it’s not like they’re going to confirm with each other. I suggest you just avoid mentioning it, or say that you’re looking into your options but would rather work with… whichever one you’re talking to.”

“Fair enough,” Tam said. “I guess it’s not a lie until I’ve actually decided to go with both.”

Sahil put a hand on Tam’s knee. “Exactly,” he said, squeezing encouragingly. “I don’t really care one way or another about the vampires, so I’ll just… not say anything myself. That kind of alliance is really a need-to-know basis anyway; neither group will particularly want to be known for messing around in witches’ affairs, I bet.” He patted Tam’s knee one more time, then got up. “Ready to head out? I got us lunch reservations at Hell’s Kitchen.”

Despite the tongue-in-cheek name, Hell’s Kitchen was a pretty popular, sort of hipster-chic restaurant. “Sounds great.”

The lunch they had together was tasty and quiet and Tam kept the conversation off the situation with his brother for a while—he remembered how overwhelmed he’d gotten the day before and didn’t want to put himself through that again. It felt quiet, intimate, and he was almost disappointed when, toward the end of the email, his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the name, but figured it might be the lawyer, and was proven right when she greeted him with her name (Michella Alver) and firm (Alver and Stant).

He made eye contact with Sahil, pointing to the cell and nodding toward the door. Sahil gave him a thumb’s up, so he excused himself from the table, heading outside where he could hear better. After he confirmed his identity, she launched right in. “I’m given to understand that Lithway requested services on your behalf. Please understand this is a consultation on the situation and not a declaration of intent to act until you come into the office and we discuss that specifically. I’ve read over the contract you sent, and the request he made. Your older twin brother was taken by a witch, who had promised protection in return for ownership over him on his twenty-first birthday, correct?”

“Yeah,” he said, mouth dry. “His name’s Ashton Lynes.”

“The contract’s short and simple,” she said. “There’s only a few places to look at as weak clauses. In terms of a long-term approach, it’s possible that since you’re twins, the ‘firstborn’ part may be up in the air even if your brother was technically the first arrival. I couldn’t find any immediate precedent on that situation, so it would likely be a case that would have to establish precedent. If it’s ruled that neither of you are technically firstborn, the magical hold over your brother would be removed.”

“I’m just worried about time,” he said. The anxiety was starting to settle back in again. “She’s likely to leave town tomorrow. If it’s a debate over terms, we’d be looking at a lawsuit, right? Can’t those take place years after being filed? Even if she’s supposed to suspend any work with him until it’s resolved or whatever gets declared, that wouldn’t mean much if she bails with him him through the Gate.”

“Yes,” she said, a wince in her voice. “That’s why witches like her are often so successful. In terms of a quicker resolution, the best option would be if you can prove in some way that she has violated the contract. If you find a specific breach, and tell her what the breach is, the contract itself should react—she would then have no magical hold over your brother. Otherwise, you are likely going to have to look into a legal unbinding via an official ruling.”

“And if I got him away from her without managing to undo the contract?”

“Legally, he’d still belong to her. Practically, that might not matter much if she had no way to get to him until the standard seven years of indenture was up, though she could herself bring a suit against your family for breaking the terms. Also, technically theft. I don’t know how likely she’d be to follow up on legal options herself, of course, but I cannot give you the legal advice to pursue that course of action.”

Tam asked her a few more questions that didn’t amount to much, then thanked her and said he’d call her back if he needed anything further clarified. Hanging up felt dissatisfying; he was hoping for more, though he supposed he could only take what he got.

Sahil came out a moment later, carrying both his and Tam’s bags. “I got the check,” he said. “My treat. Any luck?”

“Oh—jeez, thank you,” Tam stammered, a little awkward. “No, nothing much.” He summarized quickly.

Sahil winced and nodded. “Well… I guess if we can’t break the bond we can put the two of you on a bus and have you go live somewhere else for seven years,” he said wryly. “Ready to go meet Lena? Her class should be letting out soon.”

“Class?” Tam followed Sahil as he began to head down the sidewalk.

Class, it turned out, was skating class; Sahil led him to the #4 bus, which they rode out of the valley to a small indoor skating arena about a half hour’s ride away. Inside, the air was chill, raising the hair on Tam’s arms as he and Sahil headed around to the rink-side seats where a short, energetic-looking woman in her thirties with curly black hair and olive skin was gesturing a hoard of grade-schoolers off the rink.

“Be with you in a minute!” she called over to them, brightly.

“That’s Lena,” Sahil told Tam. “I gave her a basic rundown of who you were and why you would want help, but I’ll mostly stay out of this except to back you up, okay? So, now’s the time to think of what you want to say to her.”

[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 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 23

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

“Sure, I’ll come in,” Tam said, trying not to seem too eager as he stepped past Sahil to try to get a closer peek at that dog bed. It was really small, actually, only a bit bigger than a cat bed would be. “I mean, a lot of today is going to be a waiting game between appointments, so… it’s a good chance to catch a breather.”

“Well, I’m glad to help you with that,” Sahil said, sounding strangely shy as he padded past Tam and to the left, heading toward the kitchen. “Feel free to make yourself comfortable. The coffee’ll take a few moments—how do you like yours?”

“Milk or cream, please.” Tam waited until Sahil was in the kitchen, then scooted closer to the dog bed, desperate to investigate. There was a mix of differently colored fur in it, tan and black.

“No problem,” Sahil called back.

Tam didn’t go so far as to take any toys out of the basket, but he did crouch to look at them, noticing that most of them were on the smaller side. The tennis ball sitting on the top looked more like it had been gnawed at from the side, too, rather than chewed on directly with strong jaws.

There was no doubt, Sahil was some kind of small dog with long fur. But what kind?

“Do you want—” Sahil cut himself off as he took in the scene.

Tam jumped up, then tried to act casual, even as he knew he was super obvious. It took him two tries to hook his thumbs in his pocket. “Uh?”

“I have some muffins,” Sahil said, something between laughter and embarrassment in his voice. “Do you want one? I know we’re having lunch soon, but I’m going to expire before we get there if I don’t have a little something now.”

“No, I, uh, ate before I came.” Tam gave him a wincing smile as he turned. “Sorry for prying…. I’ve just super been trying to guess about, well. Everything?”

“I can see that,” Sahil said. He took a bite out of the muffin in his hand. “You probably shouldn’t do that to Lena later.”

“That’s different,” Tam said. “Just, I know you, so I know you have to be super cute, but I don’t know what kinda pup to imagine, so the whole thing is a big question mark in my mind, and you don’t have to tell me, it’s your business, but I can’t keep myself from wondering! Sorry. Sorry.”

Sahil wavered another moment, then settled on amused. “You’re making way too big a deal of it,” he said. “Pomeranian. Not the most elegant or fearsome of beasts, I’m afraid.”

“Oh my God,” Tam said. “Black and tan?”

“With lil tan eyebrows. Yeah,” Sahil said. The coffee made a horrific sound, and he shrugged a shoulder shyly. “The beast calls. I’ll be right out.”

“Thanks.” Tam forced himself to move away from the dog bed and sit on the couch. He tried very hard not to imagine Sahil, whose personality was already basically the cutest, padding around on the tiniest, fluffiest paws.

There was silence from the kitchen—and then his vision became a reality as a miniature brown-and-black bundle of fur with the smallest pointy face came tumbling out of the kitchen, galloping over to him. Sahil let out a little bark and a tiny hop, rearing up and putting his front paws on Tam’s knees.  

The noise that came out of Tam’s chest wasn’t even human, some sort of weird bird-like trill-screech. He carefully put hands down on Sahil’s sides—this was still a person, not a puppy, he reminded himself with a desperate show of control to keep from petting him frantically—and sank his fingers into what felt like three miles of fur.

Sahil barked again, and held up one paw. It stayed there, and after a confused moment of thinking he was trying to shake, Tam realized what he was being offered.  

“You are the best,” he wheezed softly and squeezed that little paw pad gently.

The giant puff of fur at Sahil’s backside that was his tail gave a little waggle. He tugged his paw away gently a moment later, then trotted back into the kitchen.

Tam sat and tried not to transcend to a higher plane of reality while Sahil transformed back and redressed out there. He came trotting back in a few moments later in his human form, grinning madly.

“Blessed,” Tam wheezed. “I’ve been blessed by a soft angel.”

Soft angel,” Sahil repeated with an incredulous laugh. He handed Tam his coffee mug, then sat with him on the sofa, listing toward him a little. “So tell me what you’ve been up to.”

Tam sipped the coffee to try to pull himself together, then caught Sahil up on things. He went over the basics of both the meeting with Antoine and with Lithway—though he skipped the specifics of the more personal matters, since that didn’t seem relevant to the situation with Ash. And, of course, he didn’t share Lithway’s secret, though he did mention that Lithway had sworn him to secrecy about something they could do to help, and that he was considering getting geased to protect that.

“Hmm,” Sahil said, when Tam was done. “Didn’t the contract say you were under some kind of protection magic? Would a geas even work?”

Tam frowned. “I didn’t think of that,” he admitted. “I’ll ask Antoine when I see him to be sure it doesn’t have any nasty backlash. Did you sense anything on me when you were transformed?”

“Not at all,” Sahil said. “But I wasn’t trying to bite you, so maybe that’s why.”

“Speaking of which,” Tam said, “I figure I should ask you some questions before we go to meet your leader after lunch. You said originally that you couldn’t do anything at night because you’d have to be transformed, but you also said you didn’t go berserk or anything. Does the full moon have any other effect, or if I planned around help in dog form, would that be fine?”

Sahil shook his head. “It’s no good,” he said. “We don’t go berserk, but dog instincts overwhelm us entirely. It’s not like a normal transformation where we choose what to do. Any other night will be fine, but since this is during the full moon, you’ll have to make use of us during the day.”

“All right—good to know going into it,” Tam said.

“Anything else you want to know? At least, that you don’t want to bring up when we’re having lunch in public, and all that?” Sahil asked.

[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 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 22

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

Closing his eyes, Tam thought through the offer carefully.

Although Lithway did love their dramatics, this seemed to very genuinely be an incredibly serious issue to them. Tam believed that Lithway wouldn’t want to hunt him down, but that they would if he gave his word and then broke it. He couldn’t help but remember Sahil saying that nobody knew a thing about the shadowfolk—that he, a monster librarian who lived in the Valley, could find no reliable resources on them.

That Lithway was offering up this secret was something beyond an honor.

Could he do it? Without knowing what the secret was, could he promise that? If Ash wanted to know how he had been rescued, could Tam keep it from him?

He’d have to. He’d not kept many secrets from Ash before, but maybe it was time to start. And if he didn’t accept this offer now, he might not get Ash back to have to keep it a secret from him.

In some ways, his allies were a bigger issue. He couldn’t anticipate how it would affect his plans until he knew what the option even was. And what if the people he met tonight refused to go without knowing everything that was happening?

—Well, he thought, that was an issue he might have to face anyway, with the weredogs vs vampires issue. If he did plan to make use of both of them in some capacity, even if he did his best to keep them apart, that might not matter if they insisted on knowing all details of the plan. He’d either have to lie to them anyway or lose their help.

That said, the stories did have vampires be able to compel people. If he said that the information would kill him, and they still compelled him… well. Then he’d have made a very bad call, he supposed.

He let out a slow breath, opening his eyes again. Lithway hadn’t moved at all, expression not changing in the slightest.

“Lithway,” Tam said, hearing his voice come out a little rough. He was strangely moved by the offer, and was surprised he wasn’t actually feeling any fear. “I really, genuinely appreciate this. I know what a huge deal it must be, and I absolutely respect why you’d need to chase me down if I took that lightly.”

Lithway let out an agreeable hum, not interrupting—waiting for Tam to come to his conclusion.

“I would very much like to know how you can help,” Tam said. “I promise that I won’t tell, and if… if something makes me tell, I’ll understand when you come after me.” A thought occurred. “I’m—meeting with Antoine again sometime later today, and I’ll see if it’s possible to get geased to prevent me from saying anything about it. I won’t do it if I have to tell him the secret to get it to work, of course.”

A distinct look of pleasure crossed Lithway’s face. “Now, are you sure about that?” they asked. “A geas is a very strong magic, and not a pleasant one. It robs you of your free will.”

“I mean, so would death,” Tam said lightly. “And anyway, it’s not my secret to tell, so I don’t see why I’d need to make a big deal about losing the ability to do so.”

Lithway nodded, then flickered out of sight. They reappeared sitting on the desk next to Tam’s food, then put their indistinct feet on Tam’s thighs, turning the chair to face them.  “I told you I wanted to experience you. You breathed me in; I became part of your body, you breathed me out.”

Tam could feel himself blushing. “Yeah, it was good?”

“And I’m very glad of that!” Lithway said, laughing.

And then they changed—shadows firming up, changing shape, color bleeding into them all over like paint had been poured into water. They tossed their head and—Tam was sitting on the desk, feet on Tam’s legs.

The real Tam stared. “You can—”

“I can become anyone who I’ve experienced,” Lithway said, in Tam’s voice. Like this, they spoke with far more inflection than they usually had. “Not sex, per se—though that was lovely, darling, and I’d be delighted to do it again. But whatever body I have, in whatever way, understood enough to recreate.”

They seemed to let out a breath and Tam’s form dissolved around Lithway, turning back into the black smoke that always trailed off them. “It’s not something we advertise being able to do. We’re already feared, and some people truly believe we’d kill them and take their place. Perhaps some of us have; that may be more reason to not let it be known. …And ugh, can you imagine what people would say if they didn’t think my acting skills were actual talent but something I absorbed from others?”

“Did you?” Tam asked, a bit wide-eyed. “Absorb something from me, I mean.”

“I wouldn’t do that without permission, darling, but I could. I could taste your memories and feelings also.” They paused, then added, in a lewd tone, “The only feelings I experienced from you were the ones you definitely wanted me to feel.”

Tam laughed shakily. “Nice,” he said. “Okay, good, great. That’s… this might be super helpful, honestly, and that you’re willing to not just tell me but use it to help me, I’m. I’m really moved, Lithway. And I absolutely do believe you’ve worked for your skills, by the way.”

“Well, now, don’t go making a big deal over it,” Lithway said, waving a hand in the air. They seemed abruptly embarrassed. “Kiss me and go on your adventure, now! But come back to me later and tell me what you’ll use me for, hm? I’m at your service; I can’t imagine anything nicer than seeing this through to the end.”

As requested, Tam leaned up and gave them a quick kiss. “Break a leg this evening,” he said, a little shyly. “I don’t know if I’ll be back tonight, since I’m going to be doing things until really late, but would it be all right if I did?”

“Of course. Let me be your safe haven,” Lithway said. The words were romantic but the tone, again, was somehow lewd.

Tam grabbed his stuff and gave Lithway another kiss before wandering out of the apartment area, down into the theatre. His phone buzzed as he went, and he checked it to see that Sahil had texted Tam his address to meet up there before lunch.

He wrote back a quick on my way, and then, while he had his cell out, phoned Antoine.

It was answered after a ring and a half. “Tam?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” Tam said. “I’ll probably swing by late afternoon, if that works for you for having the charms ready?”

“No problem,” Antoine said. “Should be cool by then. Hope it’s going well since I saw you?”

Tam blushed. “Yeah, it’s been great,” he said. “Can I ask another magic question?”

“Go for it.”

“Is it possible to be geased to be prevented from saying something, but not tell the spellcaster what it is when setting the spell up?”

Antoine paused for a moment. When he answered, there was audible curiosity in his voice. “Sure, but the vaguer you get, the more you can get tied up in the spell. Can I ask the sort of thing you’re thinking of?”

“Someone told me a secret. I promised not to tell on pain of death.”

“Ah.” Antoine considered. “You can phrase it like, ‘I may never speak about so-and-so’s secret with anybody but so-and-so’, but if they tell you other secrets in the future, those’ll count too.”

That didn’t seem like a problem. “I mean, sure. If someone tells me something’s a secret, I’m not gonna want to go telling anyone anyway.”

“Right, but for example, if you needed to testify in a murder or whatever, you might get in trouble for colluding.”

“That escalated quickly,” Tam complained with a laugh. “I’m sure it’s fine. And if something’s no longer a secret is it still under geas?”

“Not if you phrased it that way, no. It’d only qualify while it was secret.”

“Thanks,” Tam said. “What’ll I owe you for it?”

“I kidnapped your brother; it’s on the house.” Antoine hesitated, then added, “I don’t usually do geasing work, so it might not be the nicest spell I’ve ever put together, but I do know how. Thanks for trusting me with your, uh, free will.”

“Thanks for not charging me for doing so,” Tam said wryly. “I’ll see you later?”

“Sure thing.”

He hung up and slid his phone in his pocket, then headed off to Sahil’s address.

It didn’t take him long to get there, and given how recently he’d texted he was on his way, he waited outside the small duplex’s door a few moments before losing patience and knocking. Hopefully Sahil wouldn’t be too rushed.

Sahil opened the door pretty quickly despite Tam’s worries. He looked tired, with darker circles under his eyes and his hair all mussed up, but he was fully dressed.

“Good morning,” Sahil said, a bit flustered. He stepped aside, holding the door. “Do you want to come in? It’s a little early for lunch, but we can go now if you’d rather go out right away, or… I mean, you can come in and I can give you a cup of coffee if you haven’t had one yet. I’m really interested to hear more of what happened, and that may be better in private than outside? Though, I mean… I don’t know all of what you’re going to want me to help you propose to Lena, and I know you’re tight on time.”

Tam peeked past him; the living room beyond was pretty cute, with a couch facing a TV, linen curtains in front of a big bay window, and old radiator heating. A small dog bed was tucked between the radiator and the couch, with a little box of dog toys beside it.

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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 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]