Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 25

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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.”

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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]

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Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 24

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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.”

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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]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 23

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“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

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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]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 21

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course I—”

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

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

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

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

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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]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 20

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

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

Thinking about that actually helped immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow, that was absurdly exciting.

“The bed?” Tam suggested a little unsteadily.

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

[jump to an 18+ scene]

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

He yawned, stretching out and getting his bearings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There wasn’t more he could do tonight anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Please suggest an action in the Comments.]

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

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He guessed he’d have to be sneaky somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s the one! You’ve heard of us?”

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

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

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

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

Tam lowered his gaze. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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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]

Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 17

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

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

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

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

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

Tam took out his phone and sent a text.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably for the best, given what had just happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here.” Antoine slid a drink across.

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

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

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

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

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

Antoine nodded slowly. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

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

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

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

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

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

And until then—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]