Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 17
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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…”
[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]
Man, it’s a good thing you keep running into all these thoroughly decent people. That’s a lot of good information Antoine’s given you, even without the phone. It sounds like Bella Istem isn’t exactly the type to fold under pressure, and she doesn’t have much investment in this Valley in particular; if you make things uncomfortable for her here, she might well just cut her losses and take Ash with her, so direct confrontation might not be best. But she’s also overconfident and used to things going well, so getting Ash back by trickery or stealth might be a good bet, if you can pull it off. (Don’t get overconfident yourself, though. There’s got to be a reason why people don’t pull this on her all the time, after all…)
And then there’s the phone. Ash could’ve hidden all kinds of things in there, depending on how savvy he is and how much Bella Istem let him get away with before he passed it off: bookmarks in the Maps app, notes or text docs, maybe a voicemail or recording. More importantly, you can see his location history; if you don’t know how, google it. That should give you something to go on tomorrow; maybe Sahil or his friends can help you narrow things down from there. (If you take that tactic, though, be careful. Even aside from any wards she’s got up, Ash is your twin brother; you’re going to want to be careful about showing your face where she can see it. Something to keep in mind for later.)
Probably you shouldn’t search the phone in public, even though you can probably trust Antoine. Might be nice to chat with him a little here, just get an idea of what he’s like as a person and what being a witch is actually like. Maybe he’d be willing to sell you charms or something, when you work out a more detailed plan? But even if not, he seems like a good guy; no harm in getting to know him.
Talk with Antoine some more, get to know him a little better if you can, both personally and re: his connection to Bella Istem. Does Istem have any further hold on him after he’s done collecting Ash? How DOES Istem determine whether someone is suited to learn magic as an apprentice or not (and how long does that take? Magical battery does not sound like a fun lifestyle — that, more than Ash being taken through the gate or not, is probably a more urgent deadline). What’s Antoine been up to here himself? He’s clearly been around long enough to be noted as a regular by the resident coffeeshop incubus, at least.
Wait until you’re somewhere more private to look at the phone. You know little enough about the intricacies of magic that you want to take no chances Istem’s somehow got an eye on you, through him or otherwise. No offense to him, though; he seems like a pretty decent guy.
Yeah, how DOES the apprentice/battery line get drawn? Antoine seems to be doing the best he can in a bad situation, despite his inability to move against Bella directly. I wonder if he could give you a… well, not even a magic 101, but a different perspective on it? Since the whole thing was giving you headaches earlier.
Everyone else has said good ideas about looking at the phone privately, and I agree with them! There’s so many ways Ash could have hidden some info on there, and you probably know how his mind works better than anyone else. Who knows… maybe he’s already working on his own escape? With his personality, he seems the type, unless Bella has a lot of interesting grimoires.