[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—
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]