Something evil is going down in Atlanta…
Adrian Broussard and Greg Woodhall are attending OutlantaCon, Atlanta’s annual gay geek conference, and are looking forward to a weekend of cosplay and general nerdy fun. As they mingle with other conference goers, though, Adrian feels a strange, cold energy emanating from a man dressed as a satyr.
Encounters with storybook creatures roaming the streets only increase the chilly tendrils teasing Adrian’s sixth sense—strong enough to cause disturbing visions of Greg’s existence being erased.
When a girl at the conference goes missing, then turns up dead, clues literally drop in their laps as Adrian begins to fear the cold, alien energy is engulfing the whole city. And in danger of swallowing up his lover.
To Adrian’s horror, his worst nightmare is realized. Now both he and Greg must call on reserves of strength and resourcefulness they never knew they possessed to save Atlanta, and each other.
© Copyright 2015 Ally Blue
Either this was the best costume Adrian had ever seen, or he was looking at a real live—
“Satyr!” Adrian’s partner, Greg, grabbed the man’s wiry arm, grinning from ear to ear beneath the ridiculous rainbow-striped cat ears he’d insisted on wearing. “Wow, dude, awesome costume. Did you make it?” He indicated the fur, the hooves and the whipping tail—not to mention the frighteningly realistic backward bend of the squat legs—with a sweep of his hand. “’Cause I gotta say, I’ve never seen anything like that.”
The short, hairy man shot Greg a goat-eyed glare and waddled off, blowing a weird tune on his reed flute.
Greg gaped at him. “Well. Fine, then. Asshole.” He turned away and marched down the hall in the other direction. Wounded dignity trailed after him like a rare perfume.
Adrian followed, trying not to smile. Poor Greg. He’d never met a stranger in his life. It still surprised him when other people didn’t respond in kind to his friendly overtures.
Of course, you’d think if a person went to that much trouble to create such a realistic satyr costume specifically for the OutlantaCon conference, he would want to have his efforts recognized. Which made Adrian wonder about this one.
Actually, it wasn’t the only thing unusual about this particular cosplayer. A strange, cold charge lingered in the air even after they’d parted ways. Adrian cast a surreptitious glance behind him. The satyr was gone, lost in the crowd of furries, Doctor Whos one through fourteen, and dozens of characters Adrian didn’t recognize, mingling with the occasional person dressed in street clothes.
A sharp pain in his arm yanked him out of his musings and back to the hotel lobby. He blinked at Greg. “You pinched me.”
“You zoned out and almost ran into somebody.” Greg took his hand and wove their fingers together. “I swear, Adrian, I love you more than anything, but I worry about how you get lost in your own brain sometimes.”
Adrian eyed the colorful paint striping his boyfriend’s bare torso and the clingy dance shorts with the attached tail that matched the kitty ears. “Not saying a word, sweetheart. Not saying a word.”
Greg sighed the sigh of the deeply misunderstood as the two of them wound their way through the costumed throng to the bar. “For the last time, I am gay Rum Tum Tugger. Mister I’m-too-cool-for-cosplay.” He wriggled into the space between the cloaked Assassin’s Creed character he thought was hot and a man in his underwear who looked like Thranduil, and beckoned to the bartender. “Mint julep, please, ma’am,” he shouted over the bass throbbing through the air like an enormous heartbeat. He glanced backward at Adrian. “What d’you want, babe?”
Adrian wormed his way closer and raised his voice so the woman could hear him. “Jack and Fresca, please.”
The bartender looked at him like she’d never heard that before, but went off to mix it anyway. Greg shook his head. “Where the hell did you get Jack and Fresca?”
“Physics department Christmas party. The one you couldn’t go to, remember? Doctor Alejandro’s wife was mixing them. I liked it.” Adrian grinned at Greg. “Mint julep?”
“Atlanta, man. Southern gentility and all that shit.”
Adrian wanted to laugh at the irony of a native North Carolinian talking about the south as if it were a foreign country, but the odd chill he’d felt in the satyr’s company crawled up his back again and killed his urge to laugh. He turned in a circle, scanning the crowd for yellow goat eyes and hunched, hairy shoulders.
He saw nothing out of the ordinary, considering the circumstances. This was a geek-centered conference. He expected to see lots of people dressed as their favorite fictional characters. But damn, that made it hard to spot anything out of place.
Greg handed him a rocks glass with a little square napkin stuck to the bottom. “What’s up, babe? You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Adrian took his drink and sipped. It was stronger than he’d expected from a hotel bar, cold and refreshing. The strange, icy thrill ran up his back again. He tried to look around without being obvious. “I was just thinking how, if something…well, unusual was going on here, you wouldn’t be able to easily tell in this crowd. Because of all the costumes.”
Greg’s gray eyes narrowed. “Okay, spill. What’s that mojo of yours picking up?”
Adrian tried to smile around the inexplicable dread pooling in the pit of his stomach, but it was a poor attempt, and he knew Greg saw. After five years together, Greg had developed a finely tuned radar for when something pinged Adrian’s psychic senses.
On the one hand, the fact Greg could read him so well made him feel warm and loved. The downside of that was Greg’s relatively recent penchant for playing amateur detective. He’d almost gotten killed when their neighbor’s murderer had shot him in the chest, and he’d ended up having surgery to remove the bullet.
Of course, a single whiff of oddness in a lobby full of people did not translate into a mystery at all, never mind a dangerous one. It was strange, though. Hmmm…
“Good grief.” Greg grabbed Adrian’s elbow and led him toward a tiny round table where two men were leaving. “Are you okay? Because you just went to Adrian’s Magic Fantasy Mind Land again.” He took Adrian’s drink, put it on the table along with his own, pushed him into a chair and peered into his eyes with real worry stamped all over his face. “I’m being serious here. If something’s wrong, please tell me.”
Adrian’s chest went tight. He cupped Greg’s face in both hands and tugged him down into a soft, sweet kiss. “Sorry if I’m distracted,” he murmured against Greg’s lips. “I’m all right, I swear.”
“Hm. Okay. If you swear.” Greg drew back, his mouth curved into a smile. He brushed Adrian’s hands with his fingertips, then plopped into the other chair. “Now. What did you sense?”
Like a bloodhound on a scent. Adrian managed a mostly normal smile. “Probably nothing. I felt a sort of charge in the air when that satyr was around, that’s all.”
Greg hitched one fair eyebrow upward. “I’m not having a three-way with that guy.”
“Oh, my God.” Adrian swallowed a healthy portion of his drink, for strength. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.” He leaned over the table and lowered his voice. “It felt…you know. Otherworldly. And I felt it again just a minute ago.”
The gleam in Greg’s eyes flared into a bonfire of investigatory fervor. His gaze cut left. Right. Back to Adrian. “Otherworldly how? ’Cause I’m pretty sure that guy wasn’t a ghost.” He sat back, drumming his fingers on the tabletop and studying the ceiling. “Maybe there was a ghost nearby. Like you said, it would’ve been easy to miss in this crowd.”
“I don’t think it was a ghost.” Adrian stilled Greg’s restless hands with his. “I really don’t think it was anything. Sometimes when there’s a big crowd, like there is here, I get false positives.”
“Yeah. People give off a lot of electrical energy, you know.”
Greg sipped his mint julep and watched Adrian with unwavering intensity. Adrian held his gaze. He’d learned a long time ago not to let Greg’s silent interrogation technique get under his skin. After all, everything he’d said was true.
“Okay.” Greg pointed at Adrian with his non-drink-holding hand. “But you promise you’ll tell me if you feel anything else, right? Just in case it’s a real positive?”
“Yes. I promise.” Laughing, Adrian grabbed Greg’s finger and bent to kiss the tip, which was stained with paint from the latest in a long string of productions with the PlayMakers Repertory Company back home in Chapel Hill. “Don’t give me that suspicious look of yours. Anything I feel, I’ll share with you. I swear on my research.”
Greg snickered. They both knew Adrian held his doctorate research in physics sacred.
“All right. I’ll allow it.” Greg shifted his hand to lace his fingers through Adrian’s. “So. We’ve about got time to finish our drinks before it’s time for the Moxie Pod.”
Adrian sifted through his brain and came up empty. “What’s that again?”
He got a withering look in return. “Your brain’s full of physics shit, isn’t it? That’s why you can’t remember anything else.”
“Sure.” Whatever would get Greg to explain what he was about to drag Adrian to.
“Hm.” Greg stirred his glass of sweetened whiskey with the straw then drank deeply for a moment, staring at Adrian the whole time. “Moxie Magnus riffs original Star Trek episodes in original Star Trek drag. Moxie Pod. Awesomest thing ever.”
“Oh. That does sound like fun.” Adrian gulped more Jack and Fresca. “What about afterward? Did you want to go somewhere for dinner?”
“Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that.” Greg stabbed his straw into his glass, turning the mint leaves into mulch. “I know you aren’t crazy about going out with people you don’t know, but there’s a group walking down to Mary Mac’s tonight, and I told them to add us to the reservation. They’re supposed to have really awesome Southern food, and…”
Whatever else Greg was about to say faded into static as a sudden wave of psychic energy slammed into Adrian’s metaphysical shields. His vision tunneled. Clinging to Greg’s hand, he breathed, in and out, slow and deep, until his mind focused and the world came back.
Greg had stopped talking and was watching Adrian with a solemn, knowing look. “What happened?”
“Something’s here,” Adrian whispered.
At this point in their relationship, Greg knew enough about the paranormal in general and Adrian’s gifts in particular to stifle his curiosity when Adrian sensed something powerful.
Greg kept hold of Adrian’s hand, giving him a solid anchor in the physical world while he eased down the shields that protected his psyche from the screaming chaos of the paranormal realm and let his special senses seek out what he’d felt before. It wasn’t hard, in spite of the maelstrom of human energy churning in the room and the hotel in general. Hundreds of people so close together created an electric buzz that crawled over his skin like ants and threatened to overwhelm his senses. But the force that had crashed into his mind was different. Its cold stood out in the rolling boil of living heat like a glacier in a volcano.
It tasted like death on Adrian’s tongue. Death, disease and decay. Goose bumps rose along his arms.
He lifted his drink in a hand that shook and sipped while he glanced around the room. Just a guy with his boyfriend, having a drink and scoping out the costumes. Casual, casual. Across the table, realization flared in Greg’s eyes, and he did the same thing, shifting a bit in his chair so he had a better angle for looking around the room, and Adrian fell in love with him a little bit more.
It was a lost cause, of course. Almost everyone here was dressed as someone—or something—other than themselves. Many of the costumes ran to the strange and/or monstrous end of the spectrum. By the time the weird, dead, icy otherness vanished altogether, Adrian realized he wasn’t ever going to recognize its physical face unless it jumped out at him and yelled boo. He simply wasn’t well versed enough in all the various games, movies, shows, books, etcetera.
On the other hand…
He lifted Greg’s hand and kissed it. “Did you see anything out of place? Any costumes that you didn’t recognize or that you thought were strange ones to show up here?”
Greg shook his head. “A couple I didn’t recognize, but that’s always gonna happen. I didn’t think it was weird for them to be here. And they were with other people, so I think we can rule out them being creepy-crawlies.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right about that.” Smiling, Adrian leaned over the table and planted a kiss on Greg’s lips. “Thank you for going along with my weirdness. You’re the best.”
“So are you, babe. There’s only one of you, and you’re all mine.” Greg stroked Adrian’s cheek with fingers cold from his glass and grinned. “My payment for playing paranormal detective on short notice is going to Mary Mac’s for dinner.”
“Yeah, because you hate playing detective so much.” Adrian laughed at the apprehension Greg tried to hide. “Don’t worry. We’ll go to Mary Mac’s with the group. I’ve always wanted to go there anyway. It’ll be fun.”
“Good.” Greg swallowed enough mint julep to make him cough. “Drink up. If you make me miss Moxie, there’ll be no sexytimes for you tonight, mister.”
It was an empty threat and they both knew it—Greg had already outlined in great detail his plan to keep on the kitty ears and tail while he rode Adrian “like a wild bronco” as he put it—but Adrian drank obediently anyway. He liked seeing Greg happy.
As he swallowed the last of his drink, a thread of psychic force buzzed behind him like a defective light. By the time he put down his glass, it was gone.
He stifled a sigh. Looked like this might be a long weekend.
The fourth time Adrian blanked out on the walk from Mary Mac’s back to the hotel, Greg decided there must be some serious paranormal shit going down in Atlanta.
He couldn’t decide if that was awesome or scary.
Maybe a little of both, he mused, watching Adrian’s dark eyes go fuzzy and distant yet again.
He slipped an arm around Adrian’s waist and nuzzled his neck. “Hey. Earth to Pickles.”
That got him a smile and a soft laugh, like it usually did. Adrian claimed he didn’t like the nickname Greg had given him last year when he’d brazenly stolen Greg’s extra pickle spear from his plate, but actions, as they say, spoke louder than words.
Still smiling, Adrian turned and pecked Greg on the lips. “Sorry. I guess I’m just distracted tonight.”
Bless your heart, Greg thought, in the true spirit of the phrase.
“Bullshit,” he said instead, because subtlety usually sailed right over Adrian’s pretty head. “You swore you’d tell me what your mojo picked up. Remember?”
Adrian darted a quick look at the people all around them, groups of twos and threes and fours, men and women laughing and talking, wishing they hadn’t stuffed themselves so much on the fabulous food at Mary Mac’s, looking forward to tonight’s parties at the con, planning which panels to attend tomorrow. No one was paying Greg and Adrian the slightest bit of attention.
“It’s the same feeling I had at the hotel,” Adrian said, his voice soft and puzzled. He shook his head. “It’s so strange.”
“How?” Greg prompted when Adrian failed to elaborate.
“It’s buzzing, vibrational, like it’s alive, but…” Adrian scrunched his forehead, as if he couldn’t find the words to describe it. “Life force energy is warm. Hot, even. This is cold. Like ghostly energy, almost, except that it’s not static. It moves like living energy.” He peered at Greg with confusion and curiosity shining on his face. “I’ve never encountered anything quite like it.”
A thrill shot through Greg’s blood. He turned his head this way and that, studying the darkness between the pools of light from the street lamps. “Where’s it coming from? Can you tell?”
“No. It’s too vague.” Adrian pinned Greg with the frown he imagined the UNC freshman physics students probably got when they acted stupid in Adrian’s class. “Don’t you dare go chasing after this, Greg. I don’t know what it is. It might be dangerous.”
Greg couldn’t imagine why, but he nodded anyway. “Don’t worry, babe. I’ll be a good boy.”
Adrian’s eyes narrowed. Greg widened his. Smiled for good measure.
Adrian sighed. “Look, if you get the ghost-hunting bug—or in this case, the paranormal-entity-hunting bug—will you please at least tell me, so I can help? Don’t go off looking for whatever this is on your own. You might get hurt.”
The haunted note in Adrian’s voice killed whatever smartass reply Greg might’ve made. It was easy for him to forget Adrian’s past—the interdimensional portal he’d accidentally opened as a child, thanks to the telekinetic powers he hadn’t been able to control yet, the monsters that had come through the portal and almost killed his whole family. Adrian never talked about it, and Greg never brought it up because Adrian found the subject painful. But that episode had left deep scars on Adrian’s psyche. He’d come a long way since then, but he still feared his own powers to some extent.
Greg hugged him close. “I promise I won’t do anything dangerous. And I won’t go off ghost hunting without you.”
“Good. Thank you.” Adrian slung an arm around Greg’s shoulders. “Does this mean I’ll be forced to go dancing with you tomorrow night in a hotel ballroom?”
Greg laughed. “I brought matching costumes for us, even.”
“Mario and Princess Peach?”
“Damn skippy. I look hot in that dress.”
Adrian heaved a deep sigh. Greg grinned and kissed his shoulder. His man pretended to be a Grumpy Gus, but Greg knew better. Adrian had one hell of a wild streak. Which was one of the five million reasons Greg loved him.
The light ahead changed, and the group crossed one of the gazillion intersections between the restaurant and the conference hotel. As Greg stepped from the road onto the sidewalk, one hand in the back pocket of Adrian’s jeans and the other holding Adrian’s hand where it hung over his shoulder, a luminous shimmer from the shadows on the side street caught his eye. He glanced toward it, squinting into the darkness. Something human-sized, shiny-winged and wrong flew away into the night.
He faced forward again, mouth dry and heartbeat hammering in his ears. I did not see that. No fucking way.
Adrian looked at him with worry spilling out of those big brown eyes. “Greg?”
He didn’t need to say anything else. Greg heard the what happened in his voice.
He pressed closer to Adrian’s side. “Is your mojo picking up anything right now?”
Adrian nodded, his lips pressed into a thin line. “Same as before. That weird, cold energy.” He glanced at Greg with wide, scared eyes. “Why?”
“Because I just saw an honest-to-fuck fairy.”