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No Signs, Jay decided. If he wanted to establish himself as a neutral figure, he had to start out that way. He might need to use a Sign to get information from the Library sooner or later, but that could wait until he had at least two of them.
So he’d just sleep a normal sleep, and try to dream something else.
But that could wait. He still had a little time before bed. Thus decided, he put the treasure chest containing the awful figurine in a desk drawer and re-locked it, then turned back to Grace’s computer, sorting the files by date.
They went up to shortly before she’d disappeared—he couldn’t remember the exact date, but knew it had been in August of 2010, so that several of them were dated in July was suspicious. It looked as though most of the files were quite old, and they got rarer and rarer as time went on in the 2010s.
He started with the latest one, opening it up to find only a shopping list. It looked normal—incredibly normal, to the point that he had to wonder why she’d be writing it down in a saved file at all. Eggs, milk, sugar, oatmeal, coffee.
Maybe a decoy file of some kind? Or maybe, he reminded himself, she just held onto everything.
The next file back also wasn’t terribly useful—just a doctor’s appointment reminder, but he kept going back, until—
He says that I completed my Quest.
Even writing it down, I can’t believe it. I’ve been working on this for fifteen years, to be able to earn a place to craft into my image. It was nearly impossible. I feel worn to the bone in the doing of it.
It feels like a lie. I dropped it. Where did it get dropped? He says it doesn’t matter—that I did what he asked of me, and so the deal is made. That as long as I had stolen it, he didn’t ask for more. He says he will take care of it.
My time for this world is short. I feel it in my heart, my lungs, my exhausted body. If I wait too long, I won’t be able to go there at all. I’ll simply die.
But I’ll wait a little longer. I’ll retrace my steps to see if I can find it. As I fled, I saw:
The black-spired city
Library. Stopped here.
Mark them off as I go. Hopefully, it’s not somewhere in between.
So it seemed she used these files for everything. Shopping lists, doctor appointments, and personal diary. On the one hand, that meant if Jay kept looking, he might find more. On the other hand…
He didn’t much like what he’d already seen.
Jay rubbed his eyes, rereading the note. From what he could determine, this mysterious ‘he’ gave Grace a quest to complete in order to earn… an area of the Dreamlands to use for her own? A quest to steal something. And she succeeded, but lost the item.
It was clear she’d meant to print and check this, but he’d never found a printed version. Only the little handwritten slips of paper. They hadn’t mentioned a city, but that didn’t mean anything; as far as he knew, that might have been the only place she’d checked already.
He frowned faintly, checking the trash, but it had been emptied, just as with the downstairs garbage. No further leads there.
Well, he didn’t have much time before bed, but there was a quick way to find more: he started a search on the file explorer for ‘dream’, setting it to search within files.
And the computer crashed.
Jay swore aloud at that, gripping the edge of the desk, almost glaring a hole in the monitor as it rebooted. It came back up properly, and he reopened the file explorer.
All the file names had been replaced with hash garbage.
“What? Fuck—!” He double-clicked a file anyway, only to find it completely corrupted, a jumble of indecipherable letters and numbers. Another, same result. Another, another—
He sank back in the seat, frowning at it. All right, there were a number of things that could be done to deal with a corrupted file—backing it up to prevent further corruption, confirming it on other computers, CHKDSK, Open and Recover, a recovery program, etc. But with the huge number of files, and no confirmation of which ones were useful, it was going to be a slog, and given the subject matter and the fact the filenames had changed, he strongly suspected that this was less incidental corruption and more something… sinister.
Still, he backed up the corrupted files to a USB stick. Attempts to fix them could wait until tomorrow.
As they transferred, he got up from the desk and paced the room, scanning the book titles for anything on the Dreamlands. Other than a small collection of dream interpretation dictionaries—well, what would be a rather large collection of them for anyone but Aunt Grace—there wasn’t anything even related to dreaming, based on the titles.
Jay pulled a few of those dream dictionaries down and flipped through them, looking for any handwritten notes or annotations, but finding nothing there. “Useless,” he muttered to himself, then drew a deep breath, putting the books back rather than flinging them to the ground.
He was getting himself worked up, and he needed to calm down so he could sleep.
It looked as though the files had finally finished transferring—her machine wasn’t exactly young, and he was only glad that she mostly seemed to have documents, not videos or anything else that would chug along indefinitely. He unplugged the USB, then shut her computer down.
As he turned again, he looked out the window and caught sight of the bathroom light on in Louis’s house. A shape was moving around there, hard to see with the trees and back-lighting, and he lifted a hand to wave. But Louis must have been facing away, making a gesture like he was shrugging out of a bath robe, the color of his shape turning from a dark maroon to the pale whiteness of his skin.
It was too far for Jay to make out details, but he averted his eyes anyway until Louis abruptly left, sinking out of sight from the window.
“Better watch myself or I’m gonna have entirely the wrong kind of dreams tonight,” he muttered to himself, and felt a little better for it.
He put the USB on the desk, and turned the office light out, heading back to the bedroom. Stripping Grace’s sheets, he traded them out for his own bedding, remaking the bed so that it at least smelled and felt like his again.
And then he got changed and climbed into bed, curling up in there, feeling very alone, and wishing that dreaming didn’t feel kind of like making a commitment.
Closing his eyes, he rubbed his fingertips against the familiar feeling of his bed’s quilt, and tried to focus on something to dream about. The areas that Grace wrote about came to mind; he wished that he’d asked Hannah more about the four continents, because the locations Grace had listed couldn’t be entire continents by their nature, and he didn’t know where they’d be, assuming that anything in the Dreamlands matched up to a physical location. He’d seen the Library already and it certainly wasn’t a land mass, sand could be anywhere, a city was just a city, and sea was, by nature, around continents, not part of them.
Sea… it made him think about Camden. He didn’t want to dream of the sea itself, not and risk drowning—or cursing himself—before he even had the basics of this dream travel down, but he did want to see if the dreams could give him any insight into Camden. Not tonight, he decided reluctantly. Tonight was about making his own way, learning his own power. Maybe tomorrow, if he used the Sign then.
He wanted a place he could use for himself in the coming days, he thought sleepily. It sounded like being able to create your own home took a lot, judging from Grace’s note—fifteen years, a quest, leaving this world—but somewhere safe, somewhere quiet…
Jay woke up to find himself sitting on the bank of a low river, the waters running through it deep and loud. It cut through the center of a city of cobblestone roads and narrow stone cottages, many of them with thatched roofs. A bridge to the rest of the city was just a little further ahead. It was night, but lanterns were hanging outside many buildings, their windows lit from within, and more lanterns lined the streets and bridge.
Several cats scattered from where they were sniffing around him as he sat up; one, a sand-colored tabby cat, went only a little distance away, limping on one paw, and he offered it his hand, letting it lean forward to cautiously sniff him again.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he said. This didn’t seem so bad.
And then he looked up and saw the massive shapes pushing against the sky, clawing against the stars, pawing at the atmosphere as if it were a window holding them back.
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