• Halloween 2017 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 17

    [Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

    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]

  • Halloween 2017 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 16

    [Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

    The news should have been a shock, but somehow, it was a relief. Finally, some sort of answer, something to start filling in pieces of the puzzle.

    Tam had to force himself to not feel too relieved—after all, knowing that Antoine had been a victim like his brother didn’t mean for sure that he would really be on Tam’s side. For one thing, Lithway had said that people who were taken through the gate came back different.

    Besides, there was some evidence he was somehow in collusion with Miss Istem, willingly or not. There was the picture of Istem with the contract that the person who had taken Ash—presumably Antoine?—had with him, and Antoine had gotten hold of Ash’s cellphone somehow.

    Yet Tam found himself wanting to believe the best of Antoine. He could only imagine that an apprentice of Istem’s, stolen away in the night when still a teenager, would want to prevent others from being her captive as well, especially if his area of magic was, as rumor said, different from hers. Or, if he did want to be at her side, he might resent seeing his replacement being recruited. Or, after years of it, he might be tired of her taking yet another victim who would become one of her ‘batteries’. Either way, he’d have some kind of stake in this.

    Well, no point in making decisions about him, or anything else, until I’ve met him tonight.

    And until then—

    Tam tried to do a bit more research. He really did. He did a bit more googling based on the Magic 101 info Sahil had sent, and did learn a little more—witches weren’t ‘born evil’ or ‘born good’, but magic spells were like languages, detailed grammar and phrasing that needed to be learned. Learning multiple languages was tricky, but not impossible—and much easier if they were just dialectic differences, or languages based on a common root. Maleficia and beneficia were in many cases quite different in formation, which, along with personal preference, was why specialization appeared.

    But Tam was getting frustrated. His head felt ready to burst with information, and the more he read, the less he felt like he was retaining at this point. The basic details, like the ‘languages’ point, made sense; the rest began to swim in an overwhelming muddle.

    When he realized he was skimming, he closed the page and loaded up the urban explorers map again, trying to mark the area around Beanheadings to his own memory. He skimmed over the store names—many of them would closed at this hour—and confirmed the information he had already learned about Dupré and the weredogs’ territory overlapping around there, and then just—gave up on that too.

    He closed it, rubbed his forehead, and loaded up Youtube.

    Now that was refreshing. Dogs singing, dogs dancing, dogs catching balls and playing with toys. As he watched, he wondered again what kind of dog breed Sahil might turn into—a serious one, like his personality? An incongruously cute one? One of the weird-looking ones? Was he a pug or a greyhound, a borzoi or a chihuahua…?

    “Chill,” he muttered to himself. He was probably being weird about this. He didn’t want to act in a way that Sahil would be embarrassed by, or make him feel objectified or anything like that. At the same time, it was probably, he figured, a normal response to knowing an old crush turned into a dog without knowing any more details. Would it be offensive to ask? If Sahil wanted to say, surely he’d have just told him…

    While Tam was resting, Jared replied to just quickly note that tomorrow was fine, he was making sure he was pulling on his contacts tonight to get everything safely set up. Tam thanked him and also sent a link to a video of a dog chasing a butterfly due to an accidental copy-paste, but he figured Jared would probably appreciate it anyway.

    At 9:15 he finally put everything away, refreshed by food, drink, and having just getting off his feet and zoning out on videos for a bit. He figured he’d get down to Beanheadings a little early, get situated in there to watch people come and go, and to touch base again with anything he could learn from Matthias or whatever other baristas might be on shift along with him.

    He was still two blocks away from the coffee shop when a stranger stepped out of an alley and blocked his path.

    “Look at the warmblood running around here,” the stranger crooned. He was a tall man with skin as pale white as it could get and still have some hint of pink, two spots high in his cheeks. His piercing blue eyes were fixed unblinkingly on Tam. “You smell so fresh. Hey, warmblood, think the Valley’s friendly to your sort after dark?”

    That… was an unanticipated problem. Tam tried to make eye contact with the people scurrying past around them, stepping on the street to get out of the way of the conflict, but they avoided looking at him.

    Shit. “I’m not carrying any cash,” Tam began, his voice more uncertain than he liked. It would have been better to broadcast confidence, but he couldn’t find any in him.

    “Nah nah nah,” the mugger said. “Nah, it’s not your cash I want? You smell real good, warmblood. Like you’re new.”

    Tam took a step back from him, glancing around again for a good chance to run, if he wasn’t going to get any help. This time, his eyes made contact with a passerby’s warm brown ones, which widened in surprise and a little anxiety.

    The newcomer, a black man in his mid-twenties, looked between the mugger and the direction he’d been going, then squared himself up, stepping beside Tam, who almost sagged with relief. He moved closer to the newcomer in return. He was soft-faced, but was carrying a little weight on his arms and stomach that gave him more presence than Tam’s scrawny build, and though they were around the same height, his hair, shaved at the sides with the rest pulled up into a bun-like topknot, made him seem a little taller.

    “Cut it out, buddy,” the newcomer said, sounding more annoyed than actually challenging. “I’ve got a silver ring on, you don’t want me to have to throw the first punch. You really want to make this two on one?”

    The mugger made a face, then spat a reddish tinged mess to the side, turning to stalk back down the alley.

    The newcomer relaxed just a little. “Jeez,” he muttered, apparently more anxious than he’d let on. He turned to Tam after taking a moment to just breathe. “You okay? I’m heading somewhere right now, but I’m a bit early. If you’re not going far I can walk with you.”

    “I’m okay, just freaked out. I’m only going a couple of blocks,” Tam said, dry-mouthed. His legs were shaking with the rush of adrenaline churning through his veins. “Thanks, seriously, I didn’t think anyone would stop.”

    “I wasn’t even paying attention until you looked right at me,” the man admitted wryly. He offered a hand. “Name’s Antoine. Where’re you off to?”

    [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]

  • Halloween 2017 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 15

    [Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

    Tam decided to head back to the library—sure, Sahil was going to send him the information, but this way he could ask a couple more questions. And it wouldn’t exactly do him any harm to see Sahil’s face again and remind himself how lucky he was to have good friends helping him out.

    That, and Sahil was very easy on the eyes.

    How had he fallen in among all these hotties, he wondered, with a spike of good humor. Had it just required spending more time on his own down in the Valley? If he’d known that, maybe he’d have come down here more often without his more attractive and gregarious twin.

    He was directed to Sahil soon after arriving, finding him parked in one of the back rooms in front of a computer. Sahil seemed to perk up on seeing him, despite his faint air of confusion. Tam imagined that, in his dog form, he’d both have his head tilted and be wagging his tail.

    “Tam! I was just about to email you.”

    Tam smiled at him, pulling up a chair and dropping his bag a bit heavily next to him. “Thanks, I mean, that’ll be great for me to read over the next few hours. I was just leaving the theatre so I thought I’d stop by. You guys need anything?”

    Sahil flushed faintly, but shook his head. “I’m fine, at least,” he said. “We’re all off soon anyway, and I think if we drank any more good coffee on top of the break room’s junk, we’re all going to climb the walls. Sceana’s already up there.”

    Tam refused to look around. Whether it was a joke or not, it was an image he didn’t think he’d get out of his head. Why did snakes have to be such good climbers? “And you’ll be getting dinner on your way home?”

    Pausing again, Sahil said, “Yes… I mean, normally I’d ask if you’d want to come along, but I imagine you’ll be reading this stuff and… well, besides, I try to get home early these nights. I was just gonna buy a manburger and take it with me.”

    “Yeah, we can do that later, maybe?” Tam offered, earning a smile in return. “When things are more dealt with.”

    “That sounds great.” Sahil hit send on his email; in his pocket, Tam felt his phone buzz. “Anything I can answer for you in person before you start digging into this?”

    “A couple of things. I met Lithway in person.”

    “Ah. They’re quite a character,” Sahil said dryly.

    Tam could only nod. He felt his cheeks colour, but decided to avoid mentioning that Lithway had more or less invited him over tonight. He hadn’t decided how he felt about it yet, and just wasn’t ready to talk about the possibility. Besides, some things were better left private. “They’re very willing to help and didn’t seem to set terms, but.. I don’t really know anything about the shadowfolk. Lithway never answered anything about that in their interviews, and… pretty much the only thing I’m sure of is that they’re rare even among monsters, right?”

    Sahil nodded, face growing serious. “They’re strange. It’s not just that they’re rare, but a lot of us aren’t sure they’re even monsters.”

    “They’re definitely not human…”

    “Right, I know,” Sahil said. “And they’re certainly like a lot of monsters. They can shape-shift, and pass through shadows, and are made of something other than normal material. But they’re like… the monster’s monster. There’s been no study done on them ever, that I know of. I can’t even direct you to any reliable information. Everything out there is pretty much just urban legend. Like, maybe they’re extra-dimensional beings or something. Some legends say they show themselves to portend doom, but I think Lithway appearing on stage for so long more or less guarantees that one’s false.”

    “Lithway seems nice,” Tam offered.

    “Maybe they are. They’re certainly friendly enough to all the librarians,” Sahil said. “A lot of people think the shadowfolk are curious about humans. Hungry to become more like them. Some of those myths are about them taking over lives. But, again, Lithway’s been on the stage for decades, which I think would be difficult if they did take anybody’s life over.”

    “So basically a big nothing in terms of information.”

    Sahil sighed. “Yeah. Even if some of those things are true generally, they may not apply to Lithway. Anyway, your gut instinct is often your best bet.”

    “Thanks,” Tam said. “Did you send me anything on Dupré? I don’t know if I’ll ask for his help yet, or… even if it’ll depend on the time I’m able to go after the witch. I mean, they’re no good in the daytime. But the more informed I am, the better, right?”

    “Definitely,” Sahil said. “Your friend might be a better source on him as a person, but I did send some stuff in there.”

    “Thanks,” Tam said. He rose. “I’ll go give it a read now. I really appreciate it, Sahil.”

    Flustered, Sahil said, “Please don’t mention it. He’s my friend too, you know?”

    “Still,” Tam said gently. “…Take care of yourself tonight, okay?”

    “Oh! It’ll be fine,” Sahil said, surprised. “It’s not like in werewolf movies. I can’t control the transformation but it’s not like I’m a berserk creature after. I mostly just spend the time playing with a tennis ball or licking peanut butter out of a Kong or something.”

    Tam stared at him.

    Sahil cringed at once. “No, I know that’s a little—”

    “That’s too cute. I can’t handle you,” Tam told him, then laughed at the face Sahil made. “Let’s talk tomorrow. Have fun with your tennis ball!”

    When Sahil mimed a kick at him, Tam scurried out.

    As he left the library, he felt a helpless rush of gratitude. It was a terrible situation, but he was already further along than he would have thought possible this morning: he had some allies, and some possible leads, and the beginnings of a plan. All because of Sahil’s friendship, and the kindness of others.

    Tam’s good mood raised his hunger, so he headed to a nearby restaurant, Mama Rosie’s, where he knew the food was both good and safe for human consumption. As he ate breakfast food for dinner, he kept his headphones in to listen to music, and read through the information that Sahil had sent.

    He’d asked Sahil to check into lawyers, and, as such, there was a short list of reputable contract lawyers leading off the email. He felt a little guilty for doubling up on research for this, since he was fairly sure Lithway’s actual magic lawyers would be better equipped for handling this than if Tam contacted them himself. Still, in case Lithway for whatever reason had nothing, Tam now had a list and could move immediately if he had to.

    Then there was the information on Dupré that Sahil had sent. It started with a summary of vampire traits—need blood, can’t handle the daylight, can’t cross running water, burn at the touch of silver. Garlic was not a deterrent, and crucifixes seemed to only work on vampires who thought they would—some sort of supernatural placebo. They gathered under local ‘princes’, their leaders, and kept strict territorial boundaries (ones that often overlapped with other types of monsters’ territories, as with Sahil’s organization). There were only two main vampire groups in Branwin, lead respectively by Ranier Dupré and Angelica Roth; Roth was paranoid about human intentions, and would likely only be a good source if for whatever reason Dupré was a wash, as the two hated each other.

    Dupré, according to Sahil, was infamously lazy and a stay-at-home—practically a shut-in. He liked video games and old movies. Sahil did warn that the personality information came from his leader, though, who disliked Dupré due to their territorial disputes, and as such might not be entirely accurate.

    He also asked Tam to please not mention to her that Sahil had said that.

    Tam grinned.

    Next up was a basic Magic 101, which Sahil said was probably important to read before the last section. It went over maleficia, or dark magic, and beneficia, the lighter magic. Beneficia was designed to aid and heal; maleficia to curse and harm. Things like the evil eye, cursing cows, curdling milk, and blighting crops were famous ‘classic’ maleficia, while well-known beneficia were things like healing the sick, helping people sleep better, love potions, charms to ease childbirth, and so on. Each of these could be further divided into specialties; for example, old midwives would focus on childbirth and healing female ailments. Other beneficia users would be things like kitchen witches who aided in speeding up the rising of bread, helping food go further so that a family without much could survive on less, food that kept you warm. Or they might be something like farming witches who would help with crops and weather and dealing with pests, healing ailments in animals, and the like. On the other side, maleficia users would focus on conjuration of demons, or subtle magic to harm others, or elemental attacks and weather-changing.  

    That information was followed by the details the librarians had managed to dig up on Bella Istem herself. It was similar to what Lithway had told him—there were several records of people trying to get their friends or family back, only to find she’d spirited them out of the Valley and vanished with them before they could follow up on legal issues. It seemed she reappeared every so often, usually between three to eight years, and stole or bargained for a child in return for some apparently-helpful magic. Despite offering protection spells to convince people to trade others away, she was clearly a witch who worked maleficia, and she was known to be dangerous to cross. However, she never stayed in the Valley long.

    Accompanying this was a list of the reported stolen children, with Sahil’s note that there may be additional ones not named. He had highlighted one of the names on the list:

    Antoine Durand, taken 2007 at age 15.

    [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]

  • Halloween 2017 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 14

    [Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

    For a moment, Tam had fantasies of chasing the witch down with Lithway at his back, perhaps in the form of a great shadowy beast.

    And maybe it would come to that… but he had to be practical, too.

    “I… I would really like some advice,” Tam admitted. “I’m not at all familiar with this. My parents kept me in the dark—I could have had years to figure something out, but instead it’s just happening now. I don’t know where she is; it’s only been a few hours since I even found out. I’m thinking maybe… something legal? If you run a theatre, you probably have Valley lawyers at hand, right? Ones who handle at least some kind of contract law…”

    Lithway had moved when Tam blinked; they were now sitting almost knee to knee, the actor so close that Tam was nearly breathing in the smoke trailing off them. Lithway leaned forward and patted one of Tam’s legs, leaving their hand there and gazing up at Tam.

    “My poor dear boy,” Lithway murmured. “What a shock this must have been! As dull as that is, I can certainly talk to some of my lawyers, get a recommendation of who would be best. They do exist; demons in particular employ very strict contract lawyers—so their own contracts don’t get violated. But my worry is that a legal battle will take a long time.”

    This close, Tam could see every one of Lithway’s eyelashes, faint wisps of smoke around their eyes, winding softly away. “I mean, maybe, but would it be likely to get him back?”

    “Unless her own contract is found to be binding. But even so, most witches only spend a few days in the Valley getting their conquests acclimatized to the gate, and after that, they whisk them away to our world. It’s not impossible to get a legal matter dealt with across those metaphorical state lines, but your brother may not be the same when he returns.”

    Tam stared at them.

    “Oh, you look ghastly, my dear,” Lithway said. They let go of Tam’s leg, but only to touch his face, a soft, sympathetic gesture. “You didn’t know. I’m so sorry. I suppose that’s the sort of thing only those who work closely with witches would know—I’ve worked with all sorts for special effects, and I’ve heard a bit of chatter around that. How long it takes will depend on how easily your brother acclimatizes, or if she has pressing business that keeps her here. It won’t be less than three days; I hope that helps in some way to know.”

    It did—a little. At least he didn’t have to worry that the time he’d taken here had prevented him from finding his brother. He leaned into the touch, eating up the comfort Lithway was offering. “No, I… I didn’t know.”

    “Get a copy made of the contract, and I’ll ask around with it,” Lithway said gently. “It can’t hurt to try that side of things along with whatever else you’re doing. We’ve got a scanner in the theatre office, if you need it. Make sure you hold onto the original—don’t give it to anyone who asks for it. It’s the only proof you’ll have.”

    Tam nodded. “I’ll… I’ll do that.” He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, forcing himself to focus. “You said you know some local witches. Do you know the one in question? Bella Istem?”

    “Oh, not personally,” Lithway said at once. “But I’ve heard of her in my social circles, and I know she’s bad news. She specializes in maleficia—what you’d consider to be the dark arts. She makes plenty of these contracts. Turns those with the power into her apprentices, to try to pass off the workload, and those without it into her batteries. I haven’t heard her name in years, though!” They patted Tam’s cheek, then leaned back in their ‘chair’.  “She’s not what I’d call one of the local witches, is what I mean.”

    He swallowed, trying not to dwell on the thought of his brother being turned into a battery. “Okay. And I’m meeting someone today who has my brother’s phone, and I was told he’s a witch. I don’t know his last name, but… Antoine. I’ve been wondering if he’s her son? Because there was a man who came to get my brother. He had a picture of her with the contract. I don’t know if it’s the same person, though.”

    “That’s interesting,” Lithway said thoughtfully. They snaked a smoke-wisp tongue out to lick their lips; Tam stared in fascination. The smoke of their tongue did somehow look wetter than the rest. “No, as far as I’ve heard, she doesn’t have a son, but as I said, I haven’t heard her name in years. I don’t know an Antoine, and without more details I’d be hard pressed to say if I’ve heard of him around the place. I mean, that does imply he’s not a very remarkable witch, or one who gets involved in anything that’d draw attention. I’d guess he’s small fry, whatever he is.”


    “But don’t get depressed!” Lithway announced. They’d moved again, and now was right beside Tam instead of facing him, throwing an arm around him and squeezing his shoulder. “That someone else picked your brother up might be something the lawyer would like to hear about. If she used the standard phrasing, ‘to collect as my own’, sending someone else might be a loophole, or perhaps sloppy practice. I can’t guarantee that, though—I’m no lawyer myself. If he worked for her, it might be a false lead.”

    “Thank you,” Tam mumbled, a little shy, heart pounding, anxious and uncertain over the entire situation. “I… I’ll see what this Antoine has to say tonight, and if you can follow up with the lawyer, that’d be great. And… I mean, if I do find where she is, I’ll need to confront her…”

    “Interesting, interesting,” Lithway said. “I certainly wouldn’t mind helping you, especially if you keep me in the loop, as it were. And as long as it doesn’t happen at the same time of one of my performances, of course. I owe it to my fans—I feel for you, my dear, I really do, but I’ve only ever cancelled shows for unavoidable emergencies.”

    He tried not to feel disappointed. “No, of course! I understand that.”

    “Oh, sweetheart, I hate to see that look on your face! It’s only a few hours to avoid,” Lithway coaxed. “The play is only an hour long, and I’ll just need the time before and a short time after to keep aside.”

    Tam nodded, a little more heartened despite himself. Lithway really did seem invested, despite the lack of personal involvement in it. “Thank you,” he said, earnest. “Your willingness to help is so, so appreciated. I’m… so new to all of this, and I didn’t know where to turn…”

    “Well, I’m always happy to be someone’s first experience with getting up close and personal with the uncanny, darling,” Lithway said. They smiled, the expression merry. “When’s your meeting with this Antoine?”


    “Aha! Well, feel free to come by after, if you wish,” Lithway said. “Don’t feel obliged, darling, especially if you need to run away home to rest up for another busy night, but I’ll be here, waiting, if you wish to, hm, tell me more about what you’ve learned. Perhaps I can make your birthday a little better.”

    Lithway winked, and Tam wiped away any remaining doubts that he was being hit on by one of the most attractive, renowned actors the city had to offer.

    “Oh,” Tam said. “I mean, yes, I’ll have to see how things are! Do you, I mean, a phone, so I can let you know even if I don’t come by—”

    “I’ve got a landline, darling; there’s no point in me having a cell, everything physical passes right through when I lower my density.” Lithway dissolved a hand with a gesture to demonstrate, then reformed it and tapped Tam’s nose. “I do have email, though, and I can keep my computer on for you.”

    “Thanks,” Tam stammered, tempted but confused by what appeal he possibly held. He took down Lithway’s address, then got up. “I should go photocopy that contract. Should I bring it back to you—?”

    “Ah, pass it off to any of the cast,” Lithway said. “I have to start getting ready for rehearsal, sweetheart, or they’ll all get impatient and walk out on me!”

    Tam sincerely doubted that, but nodded anyway. He smiled; that, at least, came naturally. Lithway had already offered to help much more than he’d had reason to expect from any stranger. “Thank you again,” he said.

    “Please don’t mention it. You’ve got me curious now, dear, and you know what they say.”

    “Curiosity, uh, killed—”

    “But satisfaction brought it back. Go on, now!”

    Tam showed himself out, and spent a moment in the hallway outside trying to recover from the Experience that was Lithway. Then, he headed down to copy off his contract, and found Joanne specifically again to pass it off; he wanted to be sure it’d make its way back to Lithway.

    After, he checked his phone; it was somehow already five. The library would close at six, but he wasn’t sure if he needed to get back over there or not; Sahil had promised to email him the information. He imagined it’d be coming soon, since the sun would be setting around eight, and he presumed Sahil would be unavailable a short time before that regardless. He also needed come up with how to spend his time until ten tonight.

    [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]

  • Halloween 2017 IF,  Interactive Fiction

    Halloween I.F – “Uncanny Valley” Day 13

    [Please read the instructions before jumping in!]

    Just being face to face with Lithway was overwhelming; the actor’s presence was something else. Even with them condensed into that solid, classically perfect masculine form in front of him, it felt like they were filling the entire room.

    Maybe they were.


    Tam gulped, trying frantically to remember what he knew about Lithway to use as some kind of guide to approaching them. He’d read interviews, of course; they always came across as grandiose, but not exactly egotistical. Self-confident, certainly, but invariably turning the conversation around to doing it for their fans rather than for themselves. They talked about the roles they liked to take, the tendency to do one-man shows, and even the types of interviews they did as trying to bring more attention to the art, to highlight the characters and bring the best experience possible to the audience.

    And their tendency to do one-man shows didn’t take work away from other actors—rather, they sponsored local playwrights and other actors, and hosted regular independent performances on the small stage downstairs. That, along with the donations to charities, and their regular presence in the lgbt+ community, cemented their reputation as a pretty good person—for an actor who was absolutely in love with themselves.

    The only other details he could recall felt pretty inconsequential—that they lived above the theatre. That they identified as primarily nonbinary but partially male. That they regularly showed up to events they weren’t invited to just to keep people on their toes. That they liked to gamble and were a regular at the casino even though it was quite far out of the valley. That they bowled.

    “I think this poor boy’s tied his tongue into a knot,” Lithway told Joanne. “A little starstruck?”

    “Go easy on him, boss,” Joanne said. “His twin brother’s missing.”

    “His brother—?”

    “You know, Ash?” Joanne prompted.

    “Ah.” Lithway turned their gaze back onto Tam, a frown creasing those shadowy features. “You do look a lot like him.”

    “You know my brother?” Tam managed to get out. He forced himself to focus on the here and now: honesty had served him so far, and he couldn’t imagine being genuine would work against him. “Yes. It turns out, um, that our parents had promised their firstborn son to a witch on his twenty-first birthday. I found out today, I woke up to find him gone—”

    “On your birthday!” Lithway exclaimed.

    Tam glanced at Joanne; she was nodding seriously. Apparently he was on the right track.

    “I, I didn’t know if he knew you or not,” Tam said. “I think, if he did, he was trying to keep it a surprise. He got tickets for tomorrow’s show with the chance to meet you…” He began to dig in his bag.

    A hand on his stopped him. To his surprise, it was warm and solid, although he knew that Lithway was more than capable of being entirely insubstantial. Tam looked up into Lithway’s handsome face, tense.

    He had to prepare himself for rejection. Maybe even to be laughed at. This was a famous actor, busy with an upcoming play, and more than that, was one of the shadowfolk. They’d probably seen a million children stolen by a million witches. One more didn’t matter.

    “I believe you,” Lithway said, in that same, soft tone. Then they slung an arm around Tam and spun him around. “Come with me! No point in you standing here in the prop room distracting my crew right before the big night!”

    It was incredible how Lithway could emote without being able to raise their voice at all. “I, ah, okay,” Tam stammered, but it wasn’t like he could protest even if he wanted to. Lithway’s strength was immeasurable, a solid presence at his back compelling him forward.

    “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help, boss,” Joanne called, tone cranky. “Ash is a good egg.”

    “A good egg indeed,” Lithway said.

    “I didn’t know you knew each other,” Tam said, then kicked himself when he realized that he’d said that already. “I mean, my brother never…”

    “We weren’t exactly close,” Lithway said airily. “But I need to check out a lot of things from the library. Creative resources, you know, it never ends.” They were leading, or herding, Tam through another set of doors, then up some stairs, setting a demanding pace. “So I know most of the librarians, at least to look at them, and Ash seemed like such an eager boy. I always respect when today’s youth think of employment in places like that. Where do you work?”

    Tam felt his cheeks heat. “My… my parents encouraged us to take a year off school, and, ah, they kept telling us to take it off work too, to enjoy our youth.” He couldn’t help but look back on that a bit bitterly, understanding their reasons in a new light. “Ash was, um, really passionate about library work. Me, I’ve been… well, I read history books, kind of recreationally. I’d like to prepare for a degree in history if it works out. Maybe classics…”

    “Oh, brilliant,” Lithway enthused. “I think history is the best story of all. It’s incredible the way viewing it through different perspectives changes it entirely, even though it all factually occurred…”

    They were in the old apartment area now; it seemed largely abandoned, but Lithway pushed Tam on regardless, kicking a door open—though it only appeared to be a kick at first glance. Their leg dissolved against the knob and key hole, and it opened immediately, as though Lithway themself was the key.

    Tam got chills, but it didn’t feel exactly like fear. His heart was pounding.

    That didn’t exactly lessen as Lithway lead Tam into their apartment. The living room was taken up with a large desk covered in books and writing materials, and the rest of it was filled with bookcases, forming a winding, maze-like path throughout.

    The wall between the living room and bedroom had been removed, and Tam could see a large, four-poster bed that had been made up to match the decor of the theatre downstairs, all red velvet and gold gilt. Tam knew he was flushing, and averted his eyes.

    Lithway released Tam at last and gestured to their desk. “Please sit! I don’t make my place terribly hospitable, but it’s surely nicer than trying to talk non-theatre business in the theatre.”

    Tam sat in the desk chair, and across from him, Lithway formed a seat out of their own shadow, a magnificent throne-like affair, sitting and steepling their fingers in front of their face. Smoke trailed off them.

    “Now,” Lithway said, “tell me what you need. Fisticuffs with the witch? A social media post denouncing them? I have many followers on Facebook, and a very broad social circle, I assure you! I cannot promise you the world, my sweet boy, but I can promise you my desire to help, if that alone is enough.”

    [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]