• Halloween 2021 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “That Which Lingers” – Day 6

    [ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ] 

    “I’ll take you to meet the Curator,” Webb said finally, drumming their fingers restlessly on the table. “For a limited definition of meet, anyway. I don’t really know what makes them tick, but it seems equally unlikely that anybody else is working through them. They’re… unique.”

    Webb had to admit that they had a small amount of fondness for the mysterious Curator. They were almost like a pen pal, in a strange way. They had no way of knowing what the Curator thought of them in return, but they were curious. And if it turned out that the Curator couldn’t be trusted, well, best to know now.

    “I’m really grateful, Webb,” Ariadne said fervently, reaching out to squeeze Faraday’s hand tightly.

    “… I’ve only ever been over there during the day, though,” Webb warned. “And I’ve never dropped in unannounced. If there’s no luck there, another one of my contacts will be working over at the Drawing Dead all night. We could drop by.”

    They’d be unlikely to be able to reach Pax during the day, and Webb figured he was the next best bet for useful information and not stabbing them in the back. Pax had a pretty good thing going on with his current gig, and unless one of his powerful clients were the ones behind this, it seemed like a big gamble to risk it.

    And if it turned out that Pax could be trusted, they might be in the best position to connect Ariadne and Faraday with someone else that could help them.

    “The Drawing Dead…” Faraday echoed, raising his eyebrows. “A little too exclusive for my blood, but if you’ve got an in…”

    “I’ve got an in,” Webb grumbled. “Pax and I go way back.”

    “Way back?” Ariadne echoed, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. “Like…?”

    She seemed very eager to latch onto something she thought might be a glimpse into Webb’s personal life. Webb felt their cheeks heat up slightly. “Way back,” they said as flatly as they could, trying to keep a straight face as brief, heated memories flickered through their mind, curling at the pit of their stomach.

    If there’d ever been an opportunity for something more between them—well, Webb had made sure that hadn’t happened. They’d met Pax long before getting into broker work, when things were… different. Long before a lot of things had happened.

    “Don’t get excited,” they added after a moment, their tone a little cooler. “I wouldn’t say I’m close to any of these people at all, so don’t get your hopes up.”

    Ariadne raised her hands in mock-surrender. “Fine, it’s fine,” she assured them. “We’ll see what we can find out, and we’ll go from there.”

    “What are you planning to do after that, Mx. Webb?” Faraday asked casually, leaning back and taking a sip his drink.

    Webb grimaced. “I suppose that’s going to depend on how those conversations go. And what’s going on with the Inquisitors. And…” they trailed off.

    It depended on a lot of things, Webb realized. Even if they figured out where their sources were poisoned, it wasn’t as though they could just pick up their job again like nothing had happened. They’d need to clear their name with the Inquisitors first, and that could be complicated. And even if they managed that and figured out what was going on, there was always the potential Grimm might come after them to tie up loose ends.

    “—we should talk to your source, too,” Webb said with an abrupt realization. “Or get some confirmation on which of my clients have gone missing. Don’t take it personally, but I still want some confirmation that the assumptions we’re going off are true.”

    Ariadne looked uneasy, but nodded. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to track her down again, but we can try. Of course.”

    “We can do some preliminary searching for some of your clients’ names online,” Faraday suggested. “See if anybody’s been reported missing.”

    “Or if we find their social media accounts and they haven’t been updated in a while,” Ariadne pointed out. “Do you have their names, and a record of where you got your tips? Do we need to stop by your office again?”

    “I have it,” Webb said. “I keep everything with me. That’ll take a while, but yeah. Let’s start there.”

    Webb wasn’t too optimistic that they’d turn something up, but surely there’d be something to find—people shouldn’t just be vanishing without leaving some kind of imprint, digitally or otherwise, not even this close to the valley. There had to be some kind of trail, and they might feel more prepared meeting with Pax or the Curator having a bit more of an edge on who’d been doing them dirty.

    As for the others… well, the less Webb had to deal with the fae, the better, honestly. They were capricious and unpredictable, but at the same time, Webb couldn’t think of many reasons why they might want to ally with a horde of vampires. The Hallow Society would probably be the easiest place for things to have gone sour, but also the hardest place to get a read on any one individual.

    Besides, Naeemah and the Hallow Society headquarters were a little further away than the Curator’s tower and Drawing Dead. If Pax and the Curator turned up anything interesting—or if they didn’t—they could always pass through the park on the way north, out of town.

    —not that Webb intended to go with them. They smacked at their cheeks with both hands, exhaled a sharp breath, and picked up their fork again. Their dinner had gone cold, and their appetite wasn’t quite back, but they had to make good on their promise to hurt Ariadne’s wallet a little bit.

    Ariadne and Faraday both looked genuinely troubled when they didn’t order dessert.

    “What?” Webb snapped. “We have work to do. I just want to get started.”

    “Fair enough,” Ariadne said gently. Faraday pulled out his credit card and exchanged a look with her that Webb pretended not to see. Webb finished off the rest of their beer, and stole Faraday’s mint when the server came by with the cheque.

    Ariadne offered her own out, silently. Webb shoved it into their pocket.

    The walk back was mostly quiet. Faraday and Ariadne fell back a couple steps to talk softly between themselves after a few failed overtures at conversing with Webb. Webb, exhausted and at their social limit, slouched on ahead, hands jammed in their pockets, breathing in through their nose and watching their breath coil out in front of them in the chilly air. It was still drizzling lightly, painting the streets in the wet, hazy colors of neon reflections.

    As they approached the crossroads near Webb’s office, Ariadne abruptly reached out and grabbed Webb’s arm, hauling them back. They let out a curse, stumbling, leaning heavily into her as Ariadne crowded them back behind the edge of a bus shelter.

    “Fuck! What—?”

    “They’re here,” Ariadne breathed out. She’d put the helmet back on, but the visor was up, and her eyes were glowing faintly like rubies in the streetlights. “The Inquisitors.”

    An icy chill lanced up Webb’s spine. “Already?”

    “We got to you just in time,” Faraday murmured, voice a low rumble. His usual slightly affable expression was intensely serious, and he’d drawn himself up to his full height, leaning slightly in front of Ariadne and Webb, as though to block them from sight. “If they’re sniffing around here, they’re going to be heading to where you live, too.” He glanced back at Ariadne. “My helmet’s with your bike. Take Webb and get out of here. I’ll catch up.”

    Ariadne looked visibly conflicted, letting out a loud breath, but she eventually nodded, turning back to Webb. Her face was so close that they could see the pinprick points of her fangs as she spoke. “Come on. I’ll get you out of here.” She hesitated. “We’ll meet up… where should we meet up? Our place?”

    Webb glanced back towards the building where they’d rented out an office for the last eight years of their life. There was a cheery little pastry shop on the bottom floor; the logo was a brightly colored donut wearing a cape. It had little fangs in the open donut hole, like a gaping mouth.

    At first, they didn’t see anything amiss. Nobody or nothing out of place. But then—

    A ghostly shape materialized in the pool of light cast by the streetlamp. Tall and translucent, their hair streamed behind them like steam in the night, an ever-guttering candleflame. Their hand rested idly on their hip where a very real and very long sword jutted out, dripping with rainwater. Curved horns thrust back from a pointed face, with empty eyes scanning the horizon.

    Ariadne tugged at his arm. “Webb,” she whispered. “Please—”

    Maybe the Inquisitors could be reasoned with. Webb didn’t know for sure. There was only one of them here, at least, as far as Webb could see. Surely if they went around trying to take care of the worst of the worst throughout the city then they’d be interested in hearing what Webb had to say. Maybe they could help. But did they want to risk it?

    On the other hand, it’s not like Webb could just go home. If the Inquisitors were raiding their office, they’d probably be at their apartment within the hour, if they hadn’t been there already. More of them might be there waiting.

    Should they head straight to the Curator’s tower, quiet and somewhat isolated, and hope that they were there? Or was Drawing Dead a better choice right now, where it was open and lively and full of people that might be able to intervene… or who might make things worse. Or should they scrap that altogether and go someplace to regroup with Faraday and Ariadne and rest for the night—either their home, which might be warded, or someplace more neutral, like a hotel?

    As Webb watched, the Inquisitor tilted their chin up, as though they’d suddenly caught a scent on the wind.

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

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

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  • Halloween 2021 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “That Which Lingers” – Day 5

    [ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ] 

    Webb let out a breath, slumping back in the booth, and closed their eyes.

    A good person. Webb tried their best not to be the reason harm came to anybody. They weren’t totally sure why it bothered them that Ariadne recognized that. Maybe because that sort of thing made you vulnerable—easy to use and manipulate.

    But this kind of situation… recognizing that there were evils in the world and trying not to enable them was one thing. Actually going out and doing something about it—

    “I’m not the heroic type,” they said, and grimaced at how their voice sounded to their own ears, reedy and brittle. “Like… I don’t like what Grimm is doing, but that’s just—if it were really that easy to get him to stop, someone more qualified would have done so already.”

    There were hunters and brokers that dealt with bigger situations than the ones Webb handled. People who made it their life’s work as vigilantes, trying to keep things from getting too out of hand. Webb tried to avoid them as much as possible.

    Ariadne had leaned forward a little, elbows braced on the table. “There are a lot of evils in the world, I think,” she said slowly, “and they’re going to go unchecked so long as most people think, that’s someone else’s problem to deal with. I mean, I’ve been in your shoes for a long time, and I just… I don’t know. I just can’t anymore.”

    “… at the end of the day,” Faraday added quietly, after neither Ariadne nor Webb said anything, “we’re not going to force you to act on anything. But we’re still going to try. So… even if there’s information you can give us, or if you can point us in the right direction, that’ll be enough.”

    He sounded disapproving, in that gentle sort of way. I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.

    “I don’t know what the ‘right’ direction is,” Webb said, trying to keep his tone on the terse side while being fully aware that it was verging on sulky. “But—yeah, sure. Fine. Keeping in mind that I do usually charge for this, and if I find out that you’re fucking with me for any reason, I will find some way to make you pay. I promise that what I lack in altruism I make up in pure spite.”

    Ariadne’s eyes widened a little, and Webb swore they saw her lips twitch a little. But she managed to keep her serious composure. “Of course. No problem, Mx. Webb.”

    Webb sighed. “… alright. So, I work with a lot of different people. Sometimes they’re one-offs, though obviously if I don’t know the source I have to do some additional digging to verify the accuracy of the tip before sharing it. If I can’t, I either just hold onto that until I can, or I sell it as dirty information, take it or leave it, to those who know what they’re getting into. But most of the time, I try to—fuck—try to be certain of my sources to avoid, fucking, vampires eating them or something—”

    “Webb…” Faraday reached out a hand again, apparently on impulse, sympathetic. Webb smacked his knuckles with a fork.

    “What this means is,” Webb continued, “that the number of people or organizations that I work with on a regular enough basis for them to be in on a whole bloodsucker DoorDash scheme is fairly small.”

    “Are there any of them that you trust more than others?” Ariadne ventured. “People that you’ve worked with for a long time?”

    “I don’t know!” Webb tossed their hands up in the air. “Nobody at this point, apparently! People I’ve worked with for a while could have just been fucking with me the whole time and I didn’t know it!”

    But they did try to take a breath and think about that. Out of potentially dozens, they could narrow it down to four primary contacts that dealt with enough volume to make it worth their while, and whose tips at least semi-regularly sent people outside the valley.

    First, there was a group with fairly open membership known as the Hallow Society. As far as Webb knew, they were a network made up of all types that sprawled throughout Hallow Point and the surrounding valleys and who acted as sort of a support system where you paid your dues and could apply to the Society for aid. Webb frequently sent people their way to help out with some of the bigger problems that a weedwhacker or a few poultices couldn’t solve. They had an elected council that swapped out every year or so—Webb dealt with whoever was sending them emails that day.

    Second, an imp named Pax that worked at one of Hallow Point’s most notorious gambling halls. He was a shameless eavesdropper as well as a go-between between Webb and some of Hallow Point’s rich, powerful, and unsavory. Webb had been wary at first, but Pax’s tips had been pretty lucrative, and—Webb had always thought—an opportunity where Webb could do some valuable work, though they were getting less sure of that by the moment.

    Third, an individual Webb knew only as The Curator, whom Webb had never actually seen, and yet somehow trusted no more or less than the others. The Curator lived in a little tower that smelled of books and herbs, and invited Webb over with polite handwritten notes. Tea would appear when Webb was looking the other way, and they’d leave with letters in their pockets, scented with lavender and written in neat cursive. Unlike the others, who paid Webb primarily in direct e-transfer, The Curator paid in non-standard cash, or the occasional trinket.

    Finally, there were the fae. Webb usually worked with them through a dryad named Naeemah who lived in Hallow Point’s largest park, who often received rumors from her siblings and associates out in the greater woods. The fae were… not ever Webb’s first choice, but they couldn’t really turn down a network as vast as a forest.

    Webb wasn’t aware of any particular dealings that any of them may or may not have had with Grimm in the past, so that line of thought wasn’t going to be particularly lucrative unless Ariadne had anything to offer.

    “Do you know if Grimm has any enemies, or any bad blood anywhere that we might be able to take advantage of?” Webb asked.

    Ariadne shook their head slowly, then paused, thoughtful. “I remember him complaining about some kind of peryton that had been hassling the clan at one point when they were trying to expand into a new territory, but that was a while back. I don’t know if they’re still a problem.”

    “We might have to ask around specifically about that,” Faraday added quietly. “Possibly even after we’ve left Hallow Point and gone further north. The closer we get to Grimm’s territory, the more likely it is that we’ll hear about someone who’s aware of what he’s up to and none too happy about it.”

    “Though, there’s also the vampire lords in town, or some of the other big groups, like the were gangs or one of the bigger covens,” Ariadne muses. “As risky as that might be if we don’t have an in, they might be alarmed enough about a vampire lord growing his power on their doorstep that they might be moved to do something about it…”

    Webb nodded, rubbing their mouth with one hand. They didn’t really want to get too involved in this, but they could at least offer to set Ariadne and Faraday up with an introduction to one of their contacts. But of the four, which should they approach first? Or would it be a better idea to try something else altogether?

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

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

    Or negging, that’s a thing we do apparently.]

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  • Halloween 2021 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “That Which Lingers” – Day 4

    [ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ] 

    Dozens of questions were instantly on the tip of Webb’s tongue, crowding their mind with a noisy static that intermingled with the murmuring buzz of the crowd. Glasses clinked; cutlery jangled. Some guy at a table nearby was talking far too loudly.

    “Interesting,” they said after probably a beat too long, trying to reel back their fragmented thoughts. They pulled their feet up to the edge of their seat and hugged their knees, worrying absently at their lower lip with their teeth. “Well, I’m going to order appetizers for us, because I can’t deal with this on an empty stomach, and I feel like we’re going to be here for a while.”

    “That’s fair,” Ariadne said helplessly.

    “Dessert, too.”

    The server came by. They placed their orders. Webb picked up their refilled pint and took another long drink.

    “Right,” they said. In the time that had taken, they’d manage to thread their mental fingers through the tangled threads and spread out a more-or-less cohesive line of questioning. They noted with some distant amusement that both Faraday and Ariadne sat up a little straighter at Webb’s tone, like rowdy students who had been called on in class. “Let’s start chronologically. You said you left the Grimm clan. When, and why?”

    Ariadne let out a breath. “I was turned about twenty years ago. Grimm found me when I was barely making ends meet, and, well—I didn’t have any better prospects. He offered me a place to stay and a job to do, and… well, a family.” She looked down at her drink as she continued. “I was kicked out of my home when I was barely a teenager, back when the valefication happened. The ground opened up, creatures of all kinds started pouring out, and I guess I had some latent demonic blood in me that got awakened.”

    “Some great-grandma or other fucked an incubus once upon a time?” Webb asked dryly. “It’s been known to happen.”

    Valefication—the moment when the gate between worlds opened and changed everything—had been about twenty-five years prior. Webb had been eight or nine at the time, but they still remembered that day with searing clarity. For some people, it was a time of absolute terror and upheaval. For others…

    Webb remembered viewing it as an opportunity. But then, time changed a lot of things.

    Ariadne huffed out a little laugh. “Yeah,” she murmured. “So I’ve got little nubby horns and claws and nobody wants to look at me anymore, and… well, becoming a lowly servant to a vampire lord was a better gig than what I had going on, you know?”

    “Reasonable, yeah.”

    Ariadne seemed troubled to be recounting all of this, but she was relaxing a little the more that Webb continued to encourage her, nodding along. “I was with Grimm for about a decade,” she said. “It didn’t start off so bad. It was a small clan. We set up in some of the mountain towns. Ski villages. You’d get a lot of people coming and going. Tourists. Lots of people that were up for a good time with strangers and then didn’t stick around. And sometimes people would go missing on their hikes, and you know, nobody would think too much of it. But then it started… escalating.”

    Webb grimaced a little, trying to stifle their visible reaction to the icy shiver that coursed through them. They rubbed their suddenly clammy palms against their thighs. “… it happens,” they prompted, a little hastily. The last thing they wanted to do was derail her. “Go on.”

    Ariadne had started to chew on a straw, absently poking little holes directly through it. “Grimm was gaining in power and influence. He began to buy out some of the mountain resorts entirely. Elaborate chateaus with endless parties. His tastes, and the tastes of his followers, grew more violent. And more specific. Witch blood tastes better, you know. So he was particularly keen about capturing and putting witches or other magic-touched people under his thrall.”

    “That’s how we met,” Faraday spoke up quietly. Webb almost jumped; they’d almost forgotten he was there. “I was held captive. Ariadne was one of my guards. We got to talking, and we ended up escaping together.”

    Webb’s eyebrows raised at that. “… you managed that? Pardon my disbelief, but—”

    Faraday tossed his hair over his shoulder—it was an actual thing that Webb watched him do—and smiled grimly. “Grimm was holding me in a very nice locked-up room. Fantastic threadcount on the sheets.”

    “Also I had the key and punched a lot of people,” Ariadne whispered.

    “Also, she had a key and punched a lot of people,” Faraday agreed.

    “Right,” Webb muttered, rubbing their face. Their appetizers were dropped off, so they had the opportunity to muffle their incredulity in artichoke dip.

    “So we bailed, and just tried to lay low,” Faraday continued. “We gave ourselves new names, changed our appearances—”

    “One of us more than the other,” Ariadne interjected around a mouthful of beef carpaccio.

    “—yes, dear, you did have quite the glow-up.” They had another one of their Moments, gazing at each other. Webb took all the olives off of Faraday’s side of the pita tray. “But we’d just been trying to live our lives. Until recently.”

    Webb was liking all of this less and less the more they listened, but they were much too far gone to stop. “What happened recently?”

    “I ran into a member of my clan,” Ariadne said softly. “It was at a night club. I hadn’t seen her since… since way back then. She knew I was a vampire, but didn’t recognize me, so I took the opportunity to… to see if I could learn a little about what everyone was up to. With a little, um…  persuasion, she was more than happy to gush about how great things were going, and how I really should come back with her. No scrounging up blood bags for the Grimm clan, she said. Grimm had a whole pipeline set up where he was having magic users practically delivered to their door every week. Like DoorDash for bloodsuckers.”

    An amorphous, unpleasant shape had been forming in Webb’s head for a while. They somewhat regretted having eaten anything at all.

    “My clients,” they said softly. “This isn’t actually about me, is it? Grimm probably doesn’t even know or care who I am. But I arrange for people—usually magical ones, untrained, just starting out—to head out to specific locations. And if Grimm’s people got into that pipeline at any stage…”

    “Then they’d know exactly where to set up an easy ambush to nab people they know would be worth the effort.” Ariadne nodded grimly.

    Webb pressed their fingertips against their temples, trying to breathe deeply through the screaming fuzz in their ears, the ashen taste in their mouth, the rabbit-quick hammering of their heart.

    “Which…?” Webb asked after a long moment, “which ones? I need to narrow it down…”

    “We don’t know,” Faraday said softly, his perfect brows drawn together in such a genuinely sorrowful expression that Webb wanted to kick him. “Surely not all of them. That would be too noticeable. They wanted to keep this running…”

    “I wager the Inquisitors are only after you because it’s been going on too long, or someone too high-profile finally got noticed—”

    “But I receive a cut when the jobs are done successfully,” Webb protested. “I’d have noticed by now if a bunch of them weren’t getting done.”

    “Not if the people paying your cut are in on it, I guess,” Ariadne suggested unhappily. “They pay you, you think everyone was fine, you don’t raise an alarm. They cover their tracks. It’d be normal if some of your clients didn’t come back to you again, right? Like they got other jobs somewhere else, or gave up on the gig…”

    She fell silent as the server came by with their main course, flashing her a smile. Faraday and Ariadne made brief small talk while Webb tried to form thoughts through the static in their head. The food looked amazing, which was a fucking shame, given that Webb felt like they might not have an appetite ever again.

    Ariadne dug in voraciously. Faraday seemed to be on Webb’s wavelength, listlessly moving some rice around with his fork and reaching out to put one large, gentle hand over Webb’s. Webb’s fingers twitched like a dying spider, but they couldn’t quite find the energy to pull away.

    “We’re going to need to learn more,” Faraday said softly. “We didn’t… exactly have more of a plan past this. Ariadne managed to learn your name, and when I dug around for a bit more information about you—”

    “That’s when we found out that the Inquisitors had picked up the trail. We figured… we had to move fast. Both because… well, I didn’t want someone innocent to get hurt. But also, you’re our best lead on figuring out who you know, who you work with, and who might be involved with Grimm’s plans, and that’ll be our best way to figure out how to stop them. Because if they lost you, they’d probably just start using someone else instead, you know?”

    Webb tugged their hand from beneath Faraday’s, cracking their knuckles restlessly.

    They hated basically everything about this, but the story, at the very least, sounded plausible. Webb didn’t think they were lying… but still had no proof except their word, and no idea what to do next out of the dozen equally unpleasant options that seemed to spread themselves out before them. They had contacts, yes, and they knew powerful people throughout the city, but… how many of those could they trust? And what could they possibly do against a vampire lord?

    “You said…” Webb trailed off for a moment, looking up at the ceiling, as though its mysterious spiderwebs might have some kind of insight, here. “You said that you thought I wouldn’t deserve what might happen to me, if I were a good person.”

    “I believe that,” Ariadne nodded, her expression sombre.

    “I’m curious. What would you have done if you decided I wasn’t?”

    Ariadne grimaced. “Honestly, Mx. Webb,” she said softly. “I sort of wish for your sake that you weren’t.”

     

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

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

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  • Halloween 2021 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “That Which Lingers” – Day 3

    [ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ] 

    Webb considered Ariadne’s offer, casually looking up the restaurant on their phone in a show of deliberation. The reviews seemed decent. No one-star reviews proclaiming that the servers dragged them into a hidden back room for ritual purposes. ‘Locally sourced’ could be hit-or-miss with some places near the valley, but Webb could always opt for the veggie burger, just in case.

    “Sure,” they said. “Dinner and drinks sounds fantastic. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a date, anyway.” They exaggerated the tone of that as they stretched out and stood up, amusing themself with watching the way Faraday’s expression became slightly put-upon, his brows creasing.

    “Hmph. You’re not worried about being in her debt?” Faraday asked, stepping aside to let Ariadne rise up as well.

    “If it were that easy to gain actual sway over someone, everyone would be doing it,” Webb said, grabbing their raincoat from the hook near the door. “I’m sure you know all about the particulars of contracts and deals, Mr. Witch. It’s a simple verbal exchange: you’re offering information and dinner, I’ve agreed to accompany and listen for the duration thereof.”

    “And I don’t mean anything by it,” Ariadne pipes up, nudging Faraday lightly. “Don’t be prickly and make things worse.”

    Webb half expected Faraday to continue protesting, but he just sighed and leaned over, dropping a brief kiss on the top of Ariadne’s helmet. “You’re right,” he murmured. “I’m sorry. I’m just… worried.”

    “You do overthink things when you’re anxious.” Ariadne took his hand and squeezed it.

    Webb glanced away, busying themself with their phone again. The restaurant was about a fifteen minute walk from here, in roughly the opposite direction from where Webb lived—a little outside their usual stomping grounds, but not far. They wouldn’t be stranded if anything strange happened.

    “Are we walking?” they asked, opening the door and gesturing for the others to step out first.

    Ariadne nodded, stepping past, waiting in the hall for Faraday to join her. “I rode here, but I can only carry one passenger. I parked nearby. We can walk back here after to pick up my bike.”

    “Let me guess, your witch here has it charmed and protected for you?” Webb asked as they locked up.

    “He has!” Ariadne enthused. “He’s amazing.”

    “Ria…” Faraday mumbled, looking visibly flustered, in that pleased, faux-humble sort of way that Webb couldn’t stand. They let out a visible huff of breath that curled in the chill air.

    The sound of rain pattering along the metallic eaves was even louder out here. It was barely past six o’clock, but the heavy cloud cover meant that the late autumn evening was already deepening into heavy twilight. Webb tugged their hood down a little to shield their sunglasses from the drizzle.

    “And what is it that you specialize in, Mr. Witch?” Webb asked casually to break the sudden lull in conversation, leading the way down the narrow stairwell to the street.

    Witches were typically humans who had either lived on the other side of the gate their entire lives, or who possessed some sort of magical ancestry dating back somewhere in their lineage—witch blood. Although there were common spells, rituals, and shared knowledge, most witches had a particular specialty, the way that they chose to channel their magic. Webb had met witches of all sorts: nature witches, baking witches, some that used crystals, other who manipulated the ebb and flow of social media engagement. Like to charge, reblog to cast.

    How a witch worked often said at least a little about who they were as a person and what made them tick.

    To Webb’s surprise, Faraday answered openly. “Threadwork,” he said. “I sell a lot of patchwork and embroidery charms. Protection and luck, mostly.”

    “Oh, that does explain the… attire,” Webb observed dryly. Faraday’s outer coat was a patchwork rainbow thing that nevertheless presented a dazzling, cohesive whole: delicate embroidery around the hems, eyes and sigils and magical creatures poking out of pockets or chasing each other across the breadth of his wide shoulders.

    As Webb watched, they noticed that the rain simply wasn’t touching Faraday at all—his unnecessarily luxurious hair was perfectly dry, and his boots gleamed.

    “It’s been a personal project of some years,” Faraday agreed.

    “And how exactly did a stitch ‘n bitch witch end up privy to vampire games?”

    Faraday grimaced slightly and glanced aside at Ariadne. Ah.

    “Let’s maybe wait until we’re somewhere a little more private,” Ariadne said, putting a gloved hand on Faraday’s arm and squeezing.

    Webb didn’t really mind at this point, but honestly, these two. “I’m sort of getting the impression that you haven’t done this a lot before,” they said dryly. “This whole do-gooder, come-with-me-if-you-want-to-live routine.”

    “Oh,” Ariadne said weakly, their soft voice still muffled. “No, I mean. No. It was sort of… an accident. But you could tell?”

    “Yeah, you’re dreadful at it,” Webb sighed, turning in a lazy circle as they walked, arms outstretched. “Simultaneously cagey and altruistic. Nobody trusts anybody around here. Or at least they shouldn’t, if they want to stay safe. Of course I’m going to question what you’re telling me.”

    Ariadne hugged her elbows. Faraday wrapped an arm around her shoulders. His expression was thoughtful this time, quiet.

    “I know,” Ariadne said after a moment. “I mean… yeah. I don’t really know what I’m doing. But I need to do something. You know?”

    “I don’t know,” Webb said firmly. “But I certainly intend to find out.”

    The route to the Witch’s Brewery took them deeper into the valley. The streets became narrower, more active—in a lot of districts in the area, the night life really thrived. It wasn’t long before they made it to the restaurant, a sprawling thing with vaulted ceilings and a warehouse aesthetic. Enormous, kitschy fake spiderwebs were strung between the ceiling beams, and each table had a little cluster of candles that created a dim, intimate pool of light in the atmospheric gloom.

    Webb jammed their hands in their pockets and slouched a little more aggressively as Faraday graciously engaged the hostess and arranged for their table. They’d cracked a joke about not having been on a date in a while, but they genuinely couldn’t remember the last time they’d actually gone out for dinner with someone. All of their recent partners, frequent but fleeting, had been pick-ups from bars or the Bonegrindr app (“Find your boo and don’t get ghosted!”), and to call them one night stands would be significantly overstating how long Webb let the interactions last.

    This was the polar opposite of a date, but Faraday was inconsiderately handsome and Ariadne had a banging bod and a literal je ne sais quoi going on. Plus, the two were obviously fucking.

    Webb pulled up the menu on their phone and started to resentfully scan for the most expensive things they could possibly order.

    “Right this way, please,” said the server, leading the way to a curved booth near the back of the room. Webb felt a spike of anxiety, quickly followed by a swell of appreciation as Ariadne immediately slid in and put herself in the middle, leaving Webb and Faraday to sit on either end.

    “Nice place,” Webb commented after the server took their drink orders and headed off. “I particularly dig the fake spiderwebs.”

    “I don’t think they’re fake,” Faraday mused, looking up.

    “… so anyway,” Webb said after a pause, “is this finally private enough for you? I’m not going into a back room even if that’s an option, by the way.”

    Ariadne sighed, folding her arms on the table and slumping forward slightly. “This is enough,” she said quietly. “You have to understand, all this has the possibility to be dangerous for us, too. But…”

    She reached up and unfastened her helmet, easing it off. Webb, who had expected some kind of weird and hilarious pantomime when their drinks arrived, was briefly caught off guard, staring openly.

    Ariadne was exquisite, because of course she was—this was just part of how Webb was meant to suffer. Her eyes were a startlingly vivid ruby red, her ivory skin bloodlessly pale. The little bumps on the top of the helmet suddenly made a lot of sense: she had two blackened little horn nubs poking up from the peak of her high brow.

    As Webb watched, she self-consciously patted at her pale hair, fingercombing it back from her face and giving him an awkward smile, lips curving back over sharp incisors.

    “Sorry,” she said. “Um. Helmet hair.”

    “Yeah, that was definitely what I was looking at,” Webb said dryly. “Honestly, vampire seemed like the obvious choice, but I was sort of holding out for dullahan, still.” They were still staring at her, unable to pull their attention away.

    She was gazing back, wide-eyed and nervous. “Faraday and I dated a dullahan once,” she stammered.

    “Oh yeah? How was the head?”

    “Can we please,” Faraday breathed out, pained, “focus.”

    Webb was rescued by the server coming by with their drinks. It gave them an excuse to turn their attention onto something else for a moment, taking a deep breath to reset. They drained half the pint in one go before setting it back down with finality.

    Then they let out a helpless laugh. Ariadne had grasped hers in both hands and still had it tilted back, chugging the entire thing in one go.

    “Okay, okay,” Webb said helplessly, shoulders still shaking. “Take your time.”

    Ariadne gulped, then gasped a breath as she slammed the now-empty tankard down on the table. “Listen,” she said breathlessly. “Grimm is my sire. Our clan operates far enough outside the valley that they’ve been getting away with… with a lot of really dreadful things over the years. Eventually it became too much for me, and I ran away. That was years ago. But recently I happened to find out that they’re—they’re getting worse. And that you were involved, and you were in trouble.”

    She drew in a deep breath, squeezing her hands together in a tight grasp, worrying at her lower lip with one fang as she met Webb’s gaze. “I thought, if you were a good person, you probably didn’t deserve what might happen to you. And… and I thought, maybe you’d be willing to help. If I decided to stop running away and decided to do something about Grimm once and for all.”

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

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

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  • Halloween 2021 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “That Which Lingers” – Day 2

    [ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ] 

    There really was no question in Webb’s mind about whether or not they’d hear these two out, regardless of their intentions. Webb couldn’t imagine being able to sleep at night without learning more about what was going on. It went against everything they prided themselves on as a dedicated Batflix binge-watcher.

    “The Grimm clan,” they echoed, resting their chin on their hand and looking between Dapper and Motorcycle Helmet with bemusement. “They don’t exactly operate much around here.”

    Vampire clans weren’t anything to trifle with; Webb knew and respected that, of course. On this side of the gate, vampire lords were some of the most dangerous monsters you could come across, both from a personal power standpoint as well as their social and political influence as leaders of their respective clans.

    Here in Hallow Point, the crowded valley-adjacent town that Webb called home, there weren’t a ton of big-name power players like there might be in, say, New York, or Paris, or (for some strange reason) Mississauga. But there was a hierarchy, and there were clans and groups and territories that operated within it, and as far as Webb knew, the Grimm clan simply wasn’t one of them.

    “No,” Motorcycle Helmet acknowledged, fiddling compulsively with the ends of her hair. Webb watched the gesture, thoughtful. “They’re mostly based further to the northeast, in some of the mountain towns. But Lord Grimm has been getting more… um. Ambitious, in recent years.”

    “And his ambitions somehow factor in me?” Webb let out a little laugh. “Darling. Look around. I’m a lightweight. A tiny feral kitten. I run Baby’s First Adventure tours. I send people out to trap wolpertingers and set up scarecrows for were-ravens. I’m not the kind of broker that arranges vampire assassinations. Why would Grimm have a bone to pick with me?”

    All true, as much as it made Webb grimace a little to admit. There wasn’t a lot of pride or glory in their work. They knew they had the potential for more. And maybe sometimes they found the end of an interesting thread of information and longed to pull on it to see what would unravel—

    But they never did. Dramatic adventures only ended in tragedy. They stayed out of trouble and did their best to ensure trouble stayed well away from them.

    “Well,” Motorcycle Helmet pointed out, “if that is true… maybe that’s why. You’re not a big enough deal to retaliate. And the people you work with aren’t strong, right? So they’d be easier to hurt.”

    There was an unpleasant ringing sound in Webb’s ears, an ashen taste in the back of their throat. They bit the inside of their cheek, fiddling with one of their lip piercings until they faintly tasted copper instead. Thoughts buzzed through their mind in spiteful sequence.

    “… who are you?” they asked finally, chafing their palms together in annoyance. Buying themself time. “I mean, say I believe you. I don’t, not yet, but pretend I do, for a minute. How’d you find out about this? Why’d you decide to help me? And what do you need my help for?”

    Dapper smiled like he thought Webb’s slight capitulation meant he’d won this round, or something. Webb seethed a little. “My name is Faraday. This lovely one is Ariadne.”

    “That can’t be your real name,” Webb muttered sidelong at Motorcycle Helmet.

    She tilted her head to the side. “It is now. Has Webb always been yours?”

    “—you know what? That’s fair. I deserved that. Ariadne it is.”

    Faraday was still talking: “I’ve lived not far from here for the past few years, though I spent a fair amount of time on the other side of the gate prior to that, of course.”

    “Is that so?” Webb did lean a little further towards him at that, giving Faraday another scrutinizing look. Unfortunately, although plenty of the denizens of the valley and from beyond the gate were recognizably other—serpentine bodies, horns, tails, you name it—others could appear completely, unremarkably human. All Faraday had going on was his perfect hair and his stupid fancy coat.

    “Faraday is a witch,” Ariadne piped up, and honestly, bless her and her apparent need to compulsively share information at all times. “Though that’s not… I mean, I’m the one who learned about this. Faraday is just… helping me.”

    Webb filed that first bit away for later: witches could be good news or bad news, honestly. They sighed, leaning back in their chair and bracing their sneakers against the edge of the desk, making it creak as they rocked perilously back and forth. “Alright,” they drawled, “so you’re the I-knew-she-was-trouble-when-she-walked-in dame in distress in this scenario, then. You and the helmet you’re mysteriously refusing to take off.”

    Ariadne touched her gloved hand to the motorcycle visor. “And you’re wearing mirrored sunglasses and a toque and a hood indoors. I think we all have our secrets here don’t we?”

    “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” Webb offered.

    Ariadne hesitated, glancing aside to Faraday, who looked a little concerned. “… really?” she ventured after a moment.

    “No,” Webb said blithely. They dropped forward again, their chair wheels rattling, and picked up their phone. “Listen. You’ve obviously got a lot going on here, and I’m prepared to do business at this point, but you’re going to need to sweeten the pot a little.”

    “Sweeten the pot?” Faraday echoed, visibly affronted. Webb got the impression that people didn’t tell him ‘no’ very often. “We have come to warn you that you’re in danger. The Inquisitors may be coming for you as we speak. We have absolutely no obligation…!”

    The Inquisitors. That idea admittedly did give Webb a little bit of a chill. The valleys didn’t exactly do law enforcement, not really: humans and their laws stayed in their lane, and the closer you got to the gate, the more that safety and order was maintained by interlocking structures of territory, power, making the right allies, and keeping your head down. Contract law was a whole thing, sure—but Webb made very sure they were always on the right side of their contracts.

    But in some towns that spilled over into a valley, like Hallow Point, it was natural that new organizations might spring up. The Inquisitors were one such faction, usually called in to deal with those who were a significant danger to the safety of others. Even though Webb had a clean record, the Inquisitors didn’t exactly have a reputation for their fair trials and their compassionate willingness to negotiate.

    If the Inquisitors thought that Webb was putting others in danger, that was a big problem. But even more than that—if it were true, and Webb was responsible—

    They realized they’d fallen silent, staring at their hands, and that Faraday was still talking, and that Ariadne was still watching them from behind that mirrored helmet visor.

    Listen,” they said, raising their voice over Faraday’s, sitting up straight and feeling their spine crackle in protest. “Before we move on, I have one very important question. Come here. Come closer.”

    “… yes?” Ariadne prompted nervously, leaning in, eager and a bit uncertain.

    Webb slid their phone across the desk, tapping one finger on the screen. “I’m starving, and I can’t decide. What do you think? Tacos? Burgers? There’s a couple of these places I haven’t tried. You said you lived nearby. Any recommendations?”

    Faraday opened his mouth, then closed it again, and rubbed his face with one hand. Ariadne was silent for a moment, then began to laugh.

    “Oh, there’s this place I really like,” she said. “The Witch’s Brewery. Amazing craft beer.”

    “Nice,” Webb said casually, spinning the phone around to face them again. “Not on the app, though. Do they do delivery…?”

    “… why don’t we go out together?” Ariadne suggested, tone thoughtful. “You said you wanted me to sweeten the pot. How about it? Dinner and drinks on me, and I’ll tell you anything else you want to know.”

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

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

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