• Halloween 2017 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Author’s Notes and Q&A

    [Author’s Notes and Q&A]

    Thank you so much to everyone who played, read, or lurked around the periphery of this Halloween event! It was a blast to do this again this year, and I hope you guys had as much fun reading as I did writing it.

    We made something really special this year—This story is nearly 45000 words! Thank you so much to everyone who played. This year, like last one, my biggest concern was that nobody would want to play, and instead so much story happened. If and when you want to reread it, you’ll be able to find this story linked from my Extras page.

    If you had fun playing in or reading this and want to support me and my work, there’s a few ways! If you want to tip, you can Buy Me a Coffee! Or, of course, it would be fantastic if you were willing to check out my other writing. I’ve got a new book coming out this month—in three weeks, yikes!—which is also a paranormal romance. So if you enjoyed this, maybe consider checking out Empty Vessels!  

    It would also be cool if you wanted to follow me on Twitter and Tumblr to keep up to date on what I’m up to.

    Finally, what you’re all here for— Q&A! Feel free to ask me anything you want about the story, what my writing process was, things people may have suspected but not had confirmed, what other “routes” were available, whatever. Wonder what would have happened if you’d done X instead of Y? Ask it here! (Lurkers are totally allowed to ask too!)

    Once again, thank you and happy Halloween!

    [Ask Me Some Questions, I’ll Tell You No Lies]

    [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 2017 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Epilogue

    [Three Months Later]

    Tam met up with Ash after their respective classes. Tam’s had been A History of Witchcraft Prior to Valefication, which was not exactly the most comfortable class to take when he was just starting out as a witch.

    But he seemed to have less to complain about than Ash did, anyway. “Ugh, Witchcraft 101,” Ash sighed as he fell into step beside Tam on their way to the university bus exchange. “I feel like I went over this with Miranda within my first week, and we’re still on these basics.”

    “Sure,” Tam said. “It’s a prerequisite, though.”

    Miranda Doxtador was the witch that Antoine had directed Ash to as a good candidate to train him, a technowitch who ran her own small game studio in the downtown Valley area. It wasn’t quite where Ash wanted to end up using his skills—he hoped to find a good mesh of Library and Information Studies and technomancy, and was pursuing a formal degree in Witchcraft to take as his bachelor’s first.

    Tam was taking the same prerequisites, though less because he had an end goal in mind like Ash, and more because he felt like he just had a lot to catch up on. Taking classes now took some of the weight off Antoine to teach him everything.

    “I guess,” Ash said, rolling his eyes. Tam knew, with an annoyed, aching fondness, that Ash would continue to complain about it for the entire four years of his degree while still enjoying the hell out of it.

    “C’mon,” Tam said. “Here’s our bus.”

    They rode together, bumping their knees against each other and chatting on the way there—Miranda was going to let Ash start to work on data restoration today, which Ash was pretty excited about the potentials of.

    Tam yawned, listening; he was super tired after having been up most of the night with an especially anxious border collie who was actually an accountant. He thought it had gone pretty well; once Mr. Martins had realized he was there to play, he’d really let go and just had fun chasing a ball and, after several hours of that, also seemed to enjoy stomping all over Tam while trying to tuck him into the couch.

    “What about you?” Ash asked.

    Tam grinned. “I’m going to learn how to make a pumpkin pie.”

    “Like, a magic pumpkin pie?”

    “Magically delicious,” Tam said agreeably.

    “Great, cool. Save me a piece.”

    Tam’s grin became more of a smirk. “I think Antoine is looking forward to seeing you anyway, so be sure to come by and get it.”

    Ash blushed a little, then bumped his knee against Tam extra hard. “Yeah, I guess I will.”

    Tam disembarked a moment later, heading first to Beanheadings to get himself a coffee. Matthias was working today, and Tam spent a little longer than expected catching him up on how his training was going, and how he was doing in school so far. He often came in to study at a table at night, and Matthias had, somewhere along the way, started tutoring him here or there on the more demonic elements of historical witchcraft—no strings attached, he’d assured him.

    Coffees in hand, Tam headed out and over to Antoine’s. “Hey,” he said, as Antoine came out at the jingle of the bell. “I brought you a PSL.”

    “Ahhhh, super needed,” Antoine said, taking it from him and luxuriating in his first sip. “Matthias made this one, huh? He really knows how to bring out the flavor. Ready to learn?”

    “Sure hope so,” Tam said. “I didn’t get much sleep, so be patient with me. What’m I going to bake into it?”

    “I was thinking a small protection spell,” Antoine said. “It won’t last forever, but…” he shrugged. “You mentioned that your parents were worried. Once you learn this, you can bake it for them whenever you feel you need to.”

    Tam nodded slowly at that. He and Ash were talking again with their parents, though it was a bit strained; the trust there had been badly damaged, and would take a long time to repair. But he’d wanted to warn his parents about the lack of protection.

    Eric and Alice had thought that it was perhaps for the best that they would need to learn to get by without protection. Even so, they were used to taking risks now, and a bit of a minor protection spell here or there to help keep them from just straight up dying… well, it was probably a bit useful.

    “C’mon,” Antoine said, putting a hand on Tam’s back. “Let’s get started, yeah?”

    This was Tam’s favorite part of training: not the spells, though he was interested in those, but how calming it was to bake. He was sure it could be stressful under other circumstances—he wasn’t sure how Antoine got up every day and tried to bake perfect things for customers Tam had overheard being quite demanding—but when it was just him rolling out dough, twisting it and pressing it in ritual patterns as he poured that energy through him into it, he could see himself doing this for the rest of his life.

    Two hours later, the pie had cooled enough that he could make up some whip cream. As he worked it, Antoine said, “First slice is yours.”

    “Oh, I—” Tam blanched, embarrassed. He should have said this first. “I can’t. I’m seeing Rainier tonight. Can’t have any protections up.”

    Startled, Antoine laughed. “Well, that’s fine too! I’ll show you how to break your own spell, yeah?”

    “Please.”

    Ash showed up just as Tam was removing the spell from himself; it felt odd, but not difficult. The pie had sunk its protection into him, warm and deep; removing it felt like forcibly changing his own mood, finding those roots of protection in his system and gently shutting them off. He had his eyes closed, examining that feeling, when Ash flicked him in the forehead.

    “I’m awake,” Tam said, disgruntled. “I’m working.

    “Now I just look like a jerk,” Ash said. He stepped away from Tam and slung an arm around Antoine. “These look good, my dude, anything for me?”

    Antoine had a look on his face like he wanted to answer Anything you want. Tam laughed at the expression and picked his bag up.

    “I’ll let you two work that out,” he said. “Though, the pie’s all yours if you want it, Ash.”

    Ash examined it critically. “Is the crust supposed to look like that?”

    “No,” Tam said dryly. “Crusts are real hard. I’ll see you guys later, right? For the show tonight?”

    “Wouldn’t miss it,” Antoine reassured him, though he was watching Ash lick whipped cream off an egg beater.

    Ash considered Tam thoughtfully. “Is Sahil going to be okay?”

    “He’s assured me it ends early enough, though he’ll have to run off right after.” Tam bumped Ash with a shoulder as he headed past. “You’ve got some on your nose.”

    “It’s a good look for me,” Ash called back as Tam headed out for his date.

    At least, he thought it was a date. It had been set up like a date, but without the word date actually being used. Tam had wanted to ask, because it was their seventh thing-he-thought-was-a-date, but had chickened out of texting it in response to Sahil’s invitation. That just seemed too impersonal.

    He swung by Beanheadings a second time to get himself more coffee, enduring Matthias’s teasing, then headed over to the library to meet Sahil.

    Sceana perked up when she saw him. “Ssahil will be right out,” she said with her faint serpentine lisp. “He jusst headed to the back to get his sstuff.”

    Tam beamed at her. “Thanks,” he said. He unloaded one of the three coffees from the tray. “This is for you.”

    “You do not know how ssorely this is needed,” she said, taking it, then slithering off as a patron cleared his throat impatiently at the other end of the counter.

    He couldn’t quite suppress a shiver at her movement—but just because he was afraid of snakes didn’t mean he should be afraid of the person, and the discomfort was less every time he came.

    “There you are,” Sahil said. He came over, sliding an arm through Tam’s. “Ready to go?”

    Tam allowed himself to tug Sahil a little closer. “Ready whenever you are.”

    They headed to Hell’s Kitchen again. This time, they’d made reservations for between lunch and dinner, and as a result it was a bit quieter now. They found a table together by the window, where Tam could watch the foot traffic outside, human and otherwise.

    “I’m glad you keep doing this with me,” Sahil said, reaching across the table and squeezing Tam’s hand. “I really look forward to it every time.”

    “Me too,” Tam said. He licked his lips. “Is this… I mean, I don’t want to seem like a total idiot, but are we, uh, dating—”

    “Oh, I’m so glad you asked first,” Sahil said. “I’ve been going crazy.”

    Tam laughed, relaxing. “I mean, I’d like it to be,” he said. “I’d understand if you felt I was… inconstant, or whatever.”

    “No, I… don’t mind if you want to see other people too,” Sahil said thoughtfully. “I mean, I got a bit upset when you kissed Lithway right in front of me, but you’d never told me you two had a thing going on, so it was just… really sudden.”

    “I didn’t mean to keep things from you,” Tam said. “I didn’t… think I had a chance with you so it didn’t seem like, um. Well, it was still very new, so not really… anybody’s business?”

    Sahil patted Tam’s hand again. “I do get that. Anyway, I do feel a little like, ‘if he’s got an on-again off-again thing with Branwin’s most eligible celebrity, what does he see in me‘, but—”

    “Uh, how about, you’re perfect, wonderful, kind, thoughtful, super loyal, will really put yourself out for the people you care about even if you had a messy breakup at some point—”

    “We’re still friends, you know,” Sahil said, putting his face in his free hand in embarrassment.

    “Also a soft angel,” Tam said, pretending to continue as if Sahil hadn’t interrupted.

    Sahil wrinkled his nose, sticking his tongue out. “Okay, okay! Anyway…” He sighed. “I can get a bit obsessive? That’s sort of the dark side to loyalty. I know a relationship isn’t a place to experiment with getting over that sort of thing, but… ” He bit the inside of his cheek. “I want to be with you anyway.”

    “I think if we both go into it aware of, I guess, our flaws…?” Tam shrugged helplessly. “I also want to try. I mean, I’m sort of going out with Lithway, and I’m donating blood to a vampire, which is…” He didn’t have to finish. Sahil knew by reputation, at least, how pleasant a vampire’s bite could be. “So I’d understand if you just didn’t want to deal with that.”

    It only took a moment of consideration. “So… dating?” Sahil asked.

    Tam beamed at him, feeling a helpless rush of affection. He took Sahil’s hand with his other one, squeezing it between both of his. “Dating,” he agreed.

    “Are you two going to order or what?” the server asked.

    After they’d finished, they met up with Antoine and Ash—who, Tam noticed, were looking a little disheveled—and headed over to Theatre of Dreams to watch the closing show of Diary of a Madman. Lithway had insisted that since Tam and Ash missed the opening, it was only fitting they saw the closing instead, and provided free tickets to the others who had ‘helped Tam on his journey’.

    It was a gorgeous performance. Lithway embodied Poprishchin in beautiful form. The character, a Russian civil servant, oozed loneliness and isolation as he fell further and further into madness. Halfway through, Sahil leaned over and whispered that the ‘understanding the language of dogs’ thing was straight up not how dog language worked, and, because he was close, Tam put an arm around him.

    After, Sahil gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before rushing off home; Ash whistled at him.

    Tam sighed. “Contain him, please,” he told Antoine, then got up. “I’ll see you at home late tonight, okay?”

    Ash waved. “Sure thing, loverboy. Have fun.”

    He tried not to blush, but failed.

    When Tam made it backstage, he found Lithway pretty much on top of the world, humming tunelessly to themselves as they drifted around, putting props away, although it was hardly their job to do so. It seemed almost ritualistic, and Tam watched for a while until Lithway seemed to be finished with it—although there were still props left.

    “Well?” Lithway asked, smiling. “I saw you in the crowd. A pleasant sight, I assure you.”

    “It was incredible,” Tam said honestly. “I’ve always been a fan, and getting to see you now was… it was a true pleasure.”

    “Oh, please, you’ll embarrass me,” Lithway said, delighted. They slid an arm around Tam’s shoulders. “Now, I know you’ve got plans tonight, but can you spare some time for me?”

    “I’d love to,” Tam said, and let Lithway lead him out and upstairs to the apartment area. A thought occurred to him, and he hesitated briefly; better to be honest with everyone involved. “Sahil and I started dating today.”

    Lithway turned wide, guileless eyes on him. “Were you two not already?”

    “We were in ‘it’s complicated’ status on Facebook.”

    The joke hit home; Lithway snorted a soft laugh as they undid their door. “Do you want to stop this thing between us, Tam?”

    “He says it’s fine, and I’ll trust him on that,” Tam said.

    That answer seemed to surprise Lithway—they turned and considered him, then smiled again, soft and sly and pleased, and held out a hand. “Then please,” they said. “Let’s enjoy a fine celebration.”

    Tam took it, relieved. If Lithway hadn’t wanted to continue, that would be fine—Tam was fairly sure that whatever was between them wasn’t permanent, though he wouldn’t have said that to Sahil yet. It felt like a bad basis on which to hold either relationship.

    But he enjoyed the time they were sharing—the experience, as Lithway would put it—and he was sure at this point that, when the relationship eventually ended, their friendship wouldn’t.

    He was a little late getting to Rainier’s after that, and Rainier absolutely let him know it—as soon as he opened the door and called a greeting, Rainier launched himself over the back of the couch and stomped up to him.

    “Do you know!” Rainier said. “How annoying it is! To try to find these shrines on my own?! I’m watching where I’m gliding! I’m not watching the stupid radar thing!”

    “Oh, I’m so sorry,” Tam said. He put his hands on Rainier’s shoulders and turned him around, steering him back to the couch—earning himself one of those startled, curious expressions again when he let go. “I’ll make up for it, how’s that?”

    Rainier considered it with his eyes narrowed… then let out an accepting grumble. “I’ll allow it,” he said, climbing into Tam’s lap.

    Tam was more than a little light-headed when he finally headed home. He’d been out for what felt like a long time now on very little sleep, and donating blood was a bit much on top of it, but it had been a good day. He had no real complaints.

    The apartment where he and Ash were living was down very near the gate, very near to where Ash had actually been held. It was free, part of a sponsorship program the Twilight Council had available for newly awakened witches, to help them adjust to drawing power through the gate and get them started in their new life.

    Normally there was a long application process for it, but after they’d turned in the information about Bella Istem to the lawyer Michelle Alver, the Twilight Council had waived a large part of the process, along with providing a not-insubstantial reward. Istem had been pushing the limits of what a witch should do for a very long time, and this had been vital information for helping her victims.

    They still got emails and letters and phone calls every few days from families who finally got someone back, or, occasionally, from a would-be apprentice themself. There were even a few batteries who got out alive, Tam had been told. Istem herself was still on the run, but with the Twilight Council and similar organizations on the look for her, he doubted she’d be on the loose for long.

    Of course, there were other witches who did similar things who were out there, but setting a precedent was important. Who knew what the next year would bring?

    Between the reward and smaller gifts from some of the families of people they helped, they were all right for money right now, but, Tam reminded himself, he should really get a proper job now he was getting used to his daily routine. Maybe he could talk to Lena about formalizing his dog sitting as a more permanent thing. He didn’t want to leave the financial burden of their life all on Ash—

    Ash, who was sitting up late waiting for him, eating a piece of pumpkin pie. “There you are,” Ash said. “How’s my thoroughly debauched lil bro doing?” He ate another bite of pie and waited, with smug delight, for Tam’s embarrassed reply.

    Love and relief rushed through Tam instead.

    “Pretty good,” he said, walked over, and tipped the plate up so the last of the whip-coated pie squished into Ash’s face.

    It was a weird life he’d found himself in, but he was happy.

    [View The Author’s Notes and Q&A]

    [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 2017 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 30

    [And Now, the Conclusion!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    That was impossible here though.

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

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

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

    Tam remembered abruptly that Lithway already knew Ash.

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

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

    —At Lithway.

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

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

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

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

    But she was between them and the only door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What did you do?” Tam asked finally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Shit, Tam realized. He’s into me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Wow, Tam,” Ash said.

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

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

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

    But he just wanted that extra feeling of security anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Okay,” Tam prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Everything was going to be okay.

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

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