Halloween 2021 IF,  Interactive Fiction

Halloween I.F – “That Which Lingers” – Day 44

[ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ] 

Out of fucks to give for the whole day and perhaps longer—truly, a fuck deficit—Webb gave Ibis a broad shrug, raising their eyebrows. “I think whether or not we get into trouble is something completely out of your control,” they told them bluntly. “I have no idea what we’re going to do with the information, but I’m pretty confident in saying it won’t be dumber than what we choose to do without it.”

Ibis blinked, then let out a soft laugh. “Well said, well said. In that case, I take absolutely zero responsibility, but it seems as though you weren’t expecting me to.”

“I couldn’t possibly,” Webb said dryly.

“Very well,” Ibis said. “The disappearances… now, these are all just rumors, of course, and I, a humble business owner, have no intention of causing trouble with any parties that may or may not be involved.”

“Of course, of course.” Ariadne was nodding helpfully. She’d put her helmet on already, so Webb wasn’t sure she was the most reassuring sight, but under the circumstances, maybe it was better than flashing her fangs about.

“I appreciate the discretion,” Ibis murmured. “Now, being quite close to a Valley and all, there are, as you’re clearly aware, quite the number of non-human folk in the woods, here.”

“And out of the woods.”

“And out of the woods!” Ibis said, nodding. “Hmm, what I mean to say is, compared to some of the other places across the world where the valleys are quite concentrated, or the folk from the other side stayed quite close to the portals, it seems that they took one look at this pristine wilderness and decided to just… spread right out.”

They made an illustrative gesture with their thin, pale hands that Webb found simultaneously evocative and strangely uncomfortable.

“So you’re saying this whole area is kinda dangerous because there’s so many of the Otherworlders hanging out getting their après ski on?”

Ibis’s eyes flashed briefly with amusement. “Oh, not just that. They—well, we, I should say, of course, but do bear with me—have actually immersed themselves so deeply in the world that their magic and their natures have transformed this side to be more like that side. The fae especially have long been fond of blurring those barriers, of course.”

Faraday was nodding. “Areas where passage and overflows between worlds are easier. Where the barriers are thin. Mushroom circles, fairy mounds…”

“Exactly so,” Ibis nodded. “But do that enough, consistently enough, for long enough—or exert enough concentrated influence—and the lines really begin to blur. It’s their territory. Their world. And we just happen to live in it… or near it.”

Webb was feeling a bit of a headache coming on. “So,” they said, “this all being a somewhat roundabout way of saying, people are disappearing because the woods around here are teeming with the Otherworldly? Or…”

“It could be a great number of things, stemming from that,” Ibis nodded. “There are a great deal of vampires and fae around here especially, and the occasional roaming were-pack. Some people just might, unfortunately, have become lunch. Others might have strayed a little too far from the path, and…”

Ibis mimed legs walking across their desk with two fingers, then made a soft whoosh sound effect and accompanying hand gesture.

Webb frowned, exchanging a glance with Faraday. “Is that likely to happen to us?”

“I doubt it,” Faraday said thoughtfully. “But we can take measures to keep an eye out, regardless. We appreciate the information,” he added to Ibis. “I’d heard about things like that before, of course, but I wasn’t sure how prevalent it might be…”

Ibis rested their chin on their interlaced hands. “Of course,” they said. Then, thoughtfully: “One other thing I’ve heard… though I’m not sure how much truth there is to it…”

Webb, who had started to turn towards the door, turned back. “What’s that?”

“Well,” Ibis said, “our little town is… mostly human, of course. Though they do tend to look upon those like myself fairly kindly, I’ve found. Still, if it’s as I say, and there are plenty of Otherworlders out living in the forest and the lakes and the mountains, then I wonder if all things are well with them, too…”

Webb narrowed their eyes. “You wonder?” they echoed. “Or you know it’s not.”

Ibis just shook their head, long pale hair swaying. “Some struggle for power is inevitable. But there’s been a strange sort of energy out and about, the last few years. Malevolent and hungry.”

Webb thought of the wild hunt, the Erl-King, and the stories of the power Grimm had been amassing, and wasn’t surprised by that at all. They hesitated.

“We’re looking for a couple specific people,” they said. “Do you recognize the names Jenny Lim or Lekha Gill?” They opted to leave Sia and the others out for now—just testing the waters.

Ibis turned back to their tablet. “No Jenny Lim,” they said. “I have a Lekha Gill from a few years ago, but nothing recent…”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Webb. “We’ll just keep an eye out. Thanks for all your help.”

“My pleasure,” Ibis said softly. “Do be careful out there.”

Webb was quiet as they headed back outside, rubbing their face with both hands. Faraday and Ariadne both fell into step beside them.

“… ah,” Ariadne said, suddenly drawing in a breath. “We forgot to ask about where we can find Niall.”

“I think there’s a tourist map near the town center,” Faraday said. “Octavia mentioned that it was a first aid station near the edge of the village, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find…”

“Yeah. It should be fine,” Webb said, a little distracted, looking out uneasily over to the edge of the forest as they walked.

Faraday caught their gaze, nudging lightly against Webb’s side as they walked. “… I don’t think any of that changes anything,” he said quietly. “We’d already sort of realized…”

“I know,” Webb said. “It doesn’t really change anything. And I guess that’s why I’m… I don’t know. When I thought that this all might be a big misunderstanding, or some petty nonsense, some personal grievance or something, that was—well, it obviously wasn’t fine, but it was… digestible. Something I could realistically be involved in. But now—now it might be a whole big thing, and I’m just not equipped to be able to deal with that…!”

“I think…” Ariadne began, then hesitated. At Webb’s glance, tired and curious but not hostile, she continued: “I think you’re more capable than you know.”

“I agree,” Faraday said firmly.

Webb made a face. “I didn’t say I was incapable,” they muttered. “I just… I don’t want to.”

When they were younger… maybe things had been different. A younger version of them would have found this heart-poundingly exciting. A chance to be involved in something important. A mystery to solve in a remote location involving fae and vampires and missing people…? Exhilarating. A dream come true.

But a younger version of them also had all their friends get killed while out recklessly chasing adventure, so they got absolutely no say in this, that, or anything anymore.

“It’s not too late to turn back,” Ariadne told Webb, squeezing their hand. “If you don’t want to, I mean…”

“No, it is,” Webb said bluntly. “It is too late. I’m committed to this. But if you think I’m going to stop complaining about it for a hot second, you’ve got another think coming.”

Faraday snorted softly. “I think we know you well enough not to expect anything but, Webb.”

“Complain away,” Ariadne said.

“No, I mean, I don’t think we should encourage them,” Faraday said patiently.

“Jerk,” Webb sniffed, not at all actually offended. “Cad. Monster.”

The insults continued, casual and consistent, as they made their way across the village to the infirmary—as Faraday had suggested, it was fairly clearly marked. It was in a quiet area just past a row of townhouses and a redbrick pub called the Tipsy Sprite, surrounded by a fenced-in little garden and overlooking the darkened edge of the forest.

The gate was open, so Webb led the way up to the front door, hesitating. It seemed as much someone’s cottage as anything else, which was a bit of a weird vibe for an infirmary. But then, Octavia did say that Niall was a witch, so that sort of checked out. They lifted a hand and knocked.

“Coming!” Heavy footsteps approached. A moment later, the door to the cottage opened. “Is someone hurt? Come on in, then—”

Niall, or so Webb assumed, appeared to be a man in his mid-forties with dark skin and a stern, somewhat impatient expression. His hair was shaved on the sides, with the top styled into twists and pulled back into a knot at the back of his head. He wore gold wire-rimmed glasses and was currently pushing up the sleeves on the most librarian-ass grandpa sweater Webb had ever seen in their life.

“Nobody’s hurt,” Ariadne said with what was probably a pleasant smile, but was totally hidden from sight. “We’re actually just looking for a few people, and someone mentioned you might be able to help…”

Niall let out a heavy sigh, taking a step back and gesturing with his head for them to step inside. “Not sure how I’m meant to be helping with that, but there’s no use in you standing there in the doorway letting the cold air in. Come along, now… ”

Webb glanced briefly at the others, but obediently stepped inside, letting Faraday close the door behind them. There were racks for shoes and coats just inside the door. The entrance area was a round, fairly empty room—likely meant to contain people coming in bloody or otherwise. Past that, Webb could catch a glimpse a few arched doorways heading into different areas of the house: a sitting room, a kitchen, and a room with several narrow beds, at least one of which seemed to have a human figure curled up on it.

“We’re looking for some more information about some of the disappearances and strange encounters people have had in the area recently,” Faraday said. “We thought perhaps someone that tended to the injured might have met some survivors.”

Niall’s eyes immediately narrowed. “Aye, I might have done,” he agreed warily, crossing his arms across his chest. “And what’s it to you?”

“I know a few people who were heading up this way,” Webb said. “I don’t know if they came here, exactly, but I was wanting to make sure they were okay.”

“I promise we don’t mean any ill will,” Faraday assured him. “And if you don’t know anything, we can be on our way, but…”

Niall’s gaze travelled over the group of them, piercing and unimpressed. Webb frantically wracked their brain for ways to try to convince him. They weren’t keen on using their abilities, or Ariadne’s, but—

Before they had a chance to follow that line of thought any further, Niall abruptly let out an irritated sort of sigh, rubbing the back of his neck. “Fine,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of time on my hands, but if you have a few questions, I’ll see what I can answer for you. Head on into the sitting room, then.”

He leaned into one of the other doorways, voice suddenly taking on a softer edge as he called out: “Artem, I’ve got visitors. Ring the bell if you need anything.”

Webb, who had been obligingly following Faraday and Ariadne into the sitting room, froze in place mid-step so quickly that Niall almost bumped into them when he turned around.

“What’s wrong?” Niall asked with a frown, automatically bracing Webb with one hand. Faraday and Ariadne also turned.

“… Artem,” Webb echoed. “Artem Zhuravlev?”

Faraday looked startled. “Webb…? Someone you know…?” Niall also looked wary, protective; Webb noticed him angle his body slightly to put himself between Webb and the doorway.

“Might be,” he said casually. “What’s it to you?”

Webb could barely hear them over the sudden ringing in their ears. “Jenny, Elijah, and Artem took a job from me yesterday,” Webb said with a laugh that made Ariadne visibly wince. “I respect patient confidentiality and all that, but I’m really going to need to know what happened to them.”

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

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

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