Halloween 2021 IF,  Interactive Fiction

Halloween I.F – “That Which Lingers” – Day 10

[ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ] 

[Content warning: spiders]

The Curator lived in an actual, honest-to-goodness stone tower tucked away in a heavily-forested neighbourhood with a fantastic view of the city and the valley below. Webb caught more than a handful of heads turning as Ariadne’s bike rumbled down the quiet, winding streets, lit by pools of light cast by evenly-spaced streetlamps.

Eventually, the streetlamps became fewer and further between. Distantly, it occurred to Webb that they’d invited Ariadne out to an extremely secluded secondary location, which was Don’t Get Murdered 101, but it was too late to back out now.

Ariadne rolled to a stop in front of the tower gates, killing the ignition. “Wow,” she said, muffled under the helmet. “Would you get a load of this place.”

Heavy trees and a thick hedge walled the Curator’s property away from the road. The tower itself was barely visible from the gate aside from the vague, looming shape and a single top-floor window lit with a soft orange glow.

“Well, looks like somebody’s home, at least,” Ariadne added as she dismounted, offering a hand to help Webb off as well. They grasped it tightly—then didn’t release it as they stood in front of her, heart racing.

“Yeah,” they said hoarsely. “Listen. Ariadne. There’s something I need to talk to you about before we head inside.”

Webb couldn’t see her expression, but her head tilted to the side, and she squeezed Webb’s hand uncertainly in return. “… of course. What is it?”

“Not here,” said Webb. Glancing around, they spied a copse of trees whose foliage was so heavy that it had created at least a little bit of a shield from the drizzling rain. “This way.”

They tugged Ariadne that way. She took a seat, gingerly, on a bit of fallen log and took her helmet off, shaking out her hair and looking up at them with a concerned expression. “Should Faraday be listening to this or…?”

Webb pulled off their helmet as well, trusting to the extremely dim light to obscure their eyes, for now. “Is… that an option? You didn’t tell me where he was.”

“Well, if you don’t mind…” Ariadne slid a hand into her hood and pulled out a massive, palm-sized spider that immediately started to climb up her wrist.

To their credit, Webb didn’t let out more than a small, indignant noise of surprise. “Oh.” A pause. “Well, why didn’t he do that earlier?

“It takes a bit of time to cast, and he has to take off all his stuff like his wallet and phone,” Ariadne said as she gave Faraday-the-spider a little kiss, then set him down on her lap. “But it does make him very cute and portable.”

There was a slight shimmer in the air, as though something were being unravelled. A moment later, Faraday was sprawled halfway across Ariadne’s lap, bracing himself on the log. He was still wearing that brightly-colored coat; as Webb watched, some of the pieces of embroidery seemed to skitter and chase each other across the fabric until they eventually settled into place again.

“I won’t ask if you missed me,” Faraday murmured. He seemed to take in the mood pretty quickly, glancing around the darkened woods, brows creasing a little. “Is this the place?”

“Yeah,” Ariadne said. “But Webb said they had something they wanted to tell us, first…?”

Webb had crossed their arms, just watching this byplay with a ticking sense of nervousness. On the one hand, a vampire and a witch surely would have some sympathy, what with having visible weird powers of their own. On the other hand, Webb sure had put themself in a great position to be murdered if this went south.

They drew in a breath. “I needed to know if I could trust you,” they said, before they could change their mind. “This has all been a lot to deal with, and you’re strangers, and you’re asking a lot of me. So, I used magic on Ariadne.”

They both seemed startled, but not immediately angry—that was a good sign, at least.

Ariadne touched her own cheek with one gloved hand. “Oh,” she said softly. “I’d thought I’d felt… something. But I don’t remember… What did you do?” She seemed troubled, understandably wary.

“I can compel people to tell the truth,” Webb said. “I can also make people forget things, within reason. Adjust perception, rewrite memory. And a little bit of compulsion, but I haven’t ever…”

“What did you do to her?” Faraday asked, his voice low and even.

“I just asked if she was lying to me about this, and what your motivations really were. She answered truthfully, and I made her forget I’d asked. That’s all.”

Ariadne turned her phone around a few times, then set it on her lap, thumbing it to flashlight mode and illuminating the small space around them. Rather than turn away, Webb let her examine their face, taking in their appearance, the almost catlike gleam of their eyes in the darkness.

“… well,” Ariadne said after a moment, with a sigh and a bit of a wry smile. “I suppose I can’t really hold it against you, under the circumstances. Besides, I can do something a little similar. I’ve done worse and I’m not proud of it.”

Vampiric mesmer. Webb knew about that, though they hadn’t wanted to be the first to bring it up. Vampires were known to be able to charm and otherwise coerce and influence those they wanted to bring under their thrall. They were pretty sure they’d be able to notice if Ariadne tried something like that, but as for whether or not they’d be able to resist…

Webb’s shoulders slumped. “I’ve never hurt anybody with it,” they muttered. “But it’d make things complicated if people knew.”

“They start to look at you a little different?” Faraday prompted, giving Ariadne’s knee a little squeeze. “Yeah. We know.”

“… I get it,” says Ariadne. “I mean. I really get it. And… it’s okay. I’m glad you got some reassurance, and I hope it means we can work together a little better. As long as you promise not to do it to us again without consent, I’ll also give my word that I’ll never do anything like that to you, either.”

She looked very serious, slightly troubled still, but she favored Webb with a small smile when they gave her a nod.

Faraday stretched out with a sigh, then rose up, stepping a little closer to Webb. “You want to ask me too, don’t you?” he asked, reaching out to tilt Webb’s chin up with his fingers. His hands were fine-boned, lightly callused, and warm to the touch. Webb froze in place, staring up as an electric buzz ran through them, practically rooting them to the ground.

“Uh,” said Webb. Behind Faraday, they swore they heard Ariadne giggle.

“Go ahead,” Faraday prompted. “Do I need to do anything, or…?”

Webb finally regained control of their fine motor skills and grabbed Faraday’s wrist, tugging it down. “No,” they snapped. “Just—don’t look away.”

“The view is nice,” Faraday said agreeably.

Webb enthralled him out of sheer self-preservation at that point. At least when Faraday’s expression softened, vague and pliant, Webb no longer felt like a butterfly pinned to a card. Their cheeks still burned.

“Have you been lying to me?” they asked through gritted teeth.

“No,” came the dreamlike answer.

“What do you want to get out of working with me?”

“I want to try to do good,” Faraday said slowly. This was a more complex question; it seemed to take him a moment to sort through his thoughts and find what was most true. “I want to support Ariadne. And… I want to get to know you.”

Webb closed their eyes, feeling the connection between them drop. They drew in a breath through their nose, then huffed it out again.

There was always the off chance that either Ariadne or Faraday could be lying to them. Webb didn’t really know the extent of their own abilities, though they did know that any ability could technically be countered by willpower, magic power, or otherwise. Faraday was a witch—who knew what wards or tricks he had up his sleeve?

But as much as Webb preferred to keep themself separate from other people, they did understand people. They’d learned to read body language and pick up on subtle tells and how to coax for information and guide people into sales.

They felt like they could trust these two, even if they weren’t sure they were ready to.

“… you’re fine,” they muttered. “We should… I mean, that’s enough. We should head inside.”

“Sure,” said Ariadne, as Faraday turned back to look at her. “Thanks, Webb. For telling us, I mean.” She paused, chewing at her lower lip. “Can I ask… I mean, not to be rude, but what are you? Were you always able to do that, or was it the valefication?”

Webb grimaced, a lie immediately forming on the tip of their tongue… but they felt like they owed them more than that. Maybe not everything. But more.

“I’m human. I just… had a run-in with the fae,” they said, tone a little terse. “About a decade ago. A chance encounter. I was… changed, after.” They tugged off their hat, letting their untidy hair tumble free, revealing the pointed tips of their ears.

Ariadne’s eyes had widened. Faraday looked intrigued and a little worried. Webb hauled their hat back on before he could say anything or—worst case scenario—try to touch them.

“It’s not a big deal,” Webb said hastily. “I just… I mean. You asked. So there we go. It’s fucking cold out here, though, so can we please…?”

Ariadne looked torn, but nodded. “Yeah. We can… of course. What are we going to do? Just head inside? Knock at the gate?”

“We could always take a look around, first,” Faraday suggested.

Webb shook their head. “I want to approach this aboveboard if possible. Especially if we’re going in with the assumption that the Curator might be on our side. And if it turns out they’re not…”

“Then we’ve walked directly onto their home turf and have no idea what we’re in for?” Faraday said. Ariadne jabbed him with an elbow. “What! I’m fine with it, I am. We’ll protect Webb if that happens. Which I’m sure it won’t,” he added hastily.

Webb groaned a little, pulling up their hood and putting on their sunglasses. They had no idea if their eyes could affect the Curator—whatever they were—but they probably ought to keep them in reserve either way.

“I usually get an invitation,” they say, leading the way to the gate. It was unlocked, and creaked slightly when they pushed it open. “But… as you said, there’s a light on upstairs, so… yes, let’s knock, and then just see what happens.”

Ariadne and Faraday exchanged glances, but fell in step behind Webb as they made their way up the winding cobblestone walkway. The grounds were overgrown but at least slightly upkept; this late in the season, the flowerbeds were mostly barren, but showed signs of flowers having been in bloom earlier in the year.

The front door was a massive oaken thing with a heavy wooden knocker. Webb reached up to grasp it—and found themself getting a handful of air instead as the door abruptly swung open in front of them.

“Oh,” Ariadne whispered. Webb could hear Faraday suck in a breath.

“Hello?” Webb called out into the entrance hall, taking a hesitant step inside. It had been some weeks since they’d last been here, but it was as they remembered: a wide reception area and hallway, a spiral stairwell off to the left, and several closed doors directly ahead. The room was dim, lit only by the weak light of Ariadne’s phone flashlight, casting warped and looming shadows.

Webb glanced back at the others, then took a step inside, wiping their shoes off on the mat. They heard Faraday and Ariadne following suit—and then, the sound of the door closing behind them.

A lamp flickered on in the stairwell, light pooling against the glossy hardwood and marking a clear pathway further up into the Curator’s tower.

[Please suggest or +1 an action in the comments.

As a reminder, it can be thoughts, words, deeds, or curiosities!]

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