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I have to be cautious about this.
Jay thought it reluctantly, but he did think it. Yes, Louis was attractive, mask and all, and under normal circumstances, going out for a dinner date—and maybe more—with a cute boy sounded great. They’d only met that morning, but they’d hit it off pretty well, and… well, why not?
But under the circumstances, Jay wasn’t sure he could take things at face value (as it were). Without spending more time getting to know Louis, he had no way of knowing his intentions. Was it even possible to separate Louis from the fact that he was the bearer of the Pallid Mask, the messenger of the King in Yellow? That, before they’d even met, Louis had left him a message about the Yellow Sign?
Maybe it would be with time. For now, though, Louis only knew Jay just as well as Jay knew Louis, and he wasn’t sure if Louis would be separating him from that, either.
Really, he just needed more time to gauge Louis. Who he was, what he wanted.
“I can’t tonight,” Jay said, and started the car up. He didn’t have to fake his disappointment. “I wish I could—I’d really like to spend the evening with you, but today’s been crazy and I’m just… exhausted.”
“Ah.” Louis rested his hands on his legs, gazing straight ahead through the windshield. “Of course. I understand.”
“I really mean it,” Jay stressed. He reached over and gently bumped Louis’s shoulder with a fist. “Under other circumstances, I’d say yes without a thought. But I need rest, and I’ve got a lot I’ve still got to do at the house tonight, and… I mean, I’m a little preoccupied with the whole ‘end of the world’ thing. It’s not very… conducive to a good date.”
Louis turned his head slowly, eyes a bit wide through his mask. “Excuse me?”
“Did you… not know? Did your, uh, King not say? The Crawling Chaos said that my world was going to end,” Jay said. It was still bizarre to hear coming out of his own mouth. “And that I had to hurry. So… yeah.”
For a long few moments, Louis didn’t respond. And then he sighed, tilting his head back against the rest. “Sometimes I think our world is on the edge of ending at any time,” he said. “No, it’s of no concern to my King. He watches from afar, but engaging is not… ever a concern. If the world is a stage, he is attending the play.”
“It’s not so bad,” Louis said absently. “In its own way, it’s comforting to think that whatever we live through, it’s been witnessed by someone. Even if the world ends, it will be witnessed, and remembered.”
Jay made a non-committal noise. “Is that how you feel about it? Like… if the world ends, that’s fine?”
Louis didn’t seem to know how to answer. He shifted, gazing out the passenger window instead. He was silent long enough that Jay had almost given up on getting a response before Louis abruptly said, “I don’t want it to happen. If there were something I could do to stop it, I would. But this is the first I’ve heard of it, and I haven’t… processed it?”
That last was tentative. Like he was guessing at his own reaction, trying to understand it.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Jay admitted. “I’m way too calm about it myself. Just… oh, sure, it’s ending? Guess I’ll try to stop that?”
“Right,” Louis said, with a little more surety. “You had to walk out this morning over lesser things. Please understand.”
“I do,” Jay said. “…Sorry I had to surprise you with it.”
“As rejections go, it’s a very understandable one,” Louis said, a bit of a smile in his voice again.
They’d reached the thrift shop, so Jay hopped out to drop things off there. When he got back, Louis had stepped out of the car. “I think,” Louis said, “I need to think about things myself. I’ll head back on my own.”
“Are you sure? It’s not exactly a long walk, but it’s getting dark…”
“Don’t worry about me,” Louis said, definitely smiling now. “I’m not afraid of the dark.”
Jay laughed, relaxing a little again. “Guess you couldn’t be,” he agreed. “I’ll talk to you later, then. Promise.”
“See you then,” Louis agreed.
Jay watched that pale mask in the rear-view mirror until he had to round the corner, then focused on the road ahead instead. Wouldn’t be any good to the world if he got into an accident, after all.
When he got home, he ordered food again, and killed some time watching Youtube videos until it arrived, trying to keep Camden’s suggestion in mind to space things out with some normalcy. But once he’d eaten, he dug out the keys that Ashesh had given him, and held them up again.
Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to do this after dark, but he didn’t think he could sleep if he put it off until tomorrow anyway—having them, and needing to know where they went, would probably get him up in the middle of the night, and that was likely to be far worse for his sanity.
Ashesh had said that the keys would help Jay in the attic and the office, and he definitely didn’t want to hit up the attic too late at night, so he headed for that now, finding the stairs and heading up.
When Jay had been very young, he’d come up here to play hide and seek and all that. The attic had been designed like a full room, with a light switch, fully developed floors, and even a small window, pointed upward so it only showed the night sky, stars already starting to twinkle.
The memories would almost have been comforting if it weren’t for the looming shapes of stored objects, piles of dusty boxes, and even a dress-form that, on first glance, definitely got his heart pounding in the thought it might be a person.
“This might take a while,” he muttered to himself, flicking the light on and starting a first pass through the room to find something locked so he could unlock it.
The first pass wasn’t successful. He found things, certainly. Old jewelry boxes and cabinets, but either they were already unlocked, the keys didn’t fit, or they would sort of fit but wouldn’t turn.
It wasn’t until his second pass through, a little disheartened, that he took a closer look at the old, empty fish tank shoved into a back corner. It had clearly been cleaned, but had also clearly been redecorated after, pebbles put back in, along with the standard fake reeds, structures, and—as usual—a little treasure chest.
It was just about exactly the right size for the key. He didn’t exactly get his hopes up, not after so many failures, but he fished it out, finding it surprisingly heavy.
Jay inserted the key and turned it.
The lid popped open, revealing inside a disgusting-looking figurine made of jade. It was squat and twisted, a mess of toad-like features, fins, and tentacles, gazing up with bulging eyes. Even looking at it made him feel uncomfortable, as if he couldn’t take in all its details all at once.
His gaze dropped from its face to what was clutched in its hands: the sign of the Deep Ones, that jagged branch. It was held on a little plate that could clearly slide, and as he nudged it down with a thumbnail—careful not to touch the symbol itself—a little compartment opened, a key dropping from it to dangle from the figurine. Jay had a sinking feeling that it would fit into the door in the basement.
It seemed he’d found one of the Elder Signs.
Still, he hadn’t really touched the sign itself, hadn’t claimed it. Carefully, he put it back in the treasure chest and re-locked that, then put it in a pocket to carry with him. He could put it somewhere safe and decide if he wanted to make use of it later, when he knew more.
Feeling considerably more unnerved, he headed down from the attic and to the office. This one, he knew where the final key must go—and was correct. The drawers in the desk opened up at once with this key.
The bottom drawers—the file drawers—held a huge variety of folders full of article clippings and research notes for Aunt Grace’s old journalism work. The higher drawers had been emptied out, except for one piece of paper, which appeared to have the login and password for Aunt Grace’s computer.
Jay powered that up at once. He wasn’t sure what he was hoping for—perhaps something on the desktop labelled “To Jay” or some other obviously helpful secret, but when the slow beast finally finished loading, he opened the file explorer only to find a huge list of documents—presumably journalistic also—all dumped into a single folder and labelled things like adsfjk_20040629.doc.
There was probably something useful in there, or in her physical folders—Ashesh had implied as much by indicating that Jay could make use of the key. But Jay didn’t think he’d be finding it tonight unless he got very lucky. He wasn’t sure if he should spend more time on it, or do something relaxing to try to clear his mind of the worst of the day before he slept.
He sighed, looking down at the scraps of ‘dream’ papers Grace had left on her desk, feeling the treasure chest heavy in his pocket. Sleeping meant dreaming, too—and he wasn’t sure how he should go about that. He needed to practice this talent, especially because he wanted to establish himself without leaning on any of the existing cults. But finding one of the Signs had almost thrown a wrench in that, since he knew he could use it if he wanted.
How should he spend what little was left of his evening?
And then, after, how should he try to dream? Should he use the key on the basement door, or keep the Sign of the Deep One with him while he slept in his bed—or should he leave it locked up and try to enter the Dreamlands on his own? He wasn’t sure if he should use the Sign now he had it, or wait until he had more Signs, wouldn’t be handing himself over to be influenced by one specific god.
And whether he used it or not, where should he try to go in his sleep? Should he return to the library, use one of the places Grace named, or try something different, try to make his own way along, and see what he could manage on his own?
Getting ready for bed had never seemed so intimidating.
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