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Jay held his breath until he was sure that he wasn’t going to hyperventilate. Don’t panic, he told himself. He’d never been to the Dreamlands before, so maybe ‘monstrosities in the stars trying to get in’ was normal here. Maybe it had always been this way.
And besides, he’d wanted to come to a safe place, so surely this was safe.
Even as he thought it, though, he found himself doubting. Sure, if he was a waking-worlder with the same talent as Aunt Grace, he might be able to have power in his dreams here, but it sounded like plenty of people practiced for years before they could change anything. Places here were real, and most of them pre-existed—four continents, places that Aunt Grace mentioned like she’d just passed through them, not made them, a library that already had rules. People had been talking like creating something was possible but a huge achievement, and if that was true, then the idea that he, himself, could create some kind of barrier that could keep out whatever that was—
But what could would panicking do? He had to believe that if he’d wanted somewhere safe, and he’d happened to come here, it was safe.
He wrenched his gaze away from the sky and found himself staring at the injured cat again, instead. “Hey there,” he said, his voice a little croaky with stress.
“Mrrp,” the cat said, and rubbed its cheek against Jay’s fingers, lips slightly parted and whiskers spread, a toothy smile.
“You’re pretty tame, huh.” He slowly moved his hand to rub the cat’s ears, moving with deliberation so the cat could pull away or swat him if it wanted, but it just leaned up, starting a rumble. “Can I take a look at that paw? See if there’s anything I can do?”
The cat rumbled louder, then flopped onto its side. He petted that side too, carefully, then slid a hand down the cat’s leg to lift it so he could examine it. The cat’s side twitched and its tail thumped, but it otherwise didn’t protest the treatment.
The underside of its paw showed a nasty gash, clearly recent, though not still bleeding. Blood caked the fur between its toes, and Jay winced as he looked at that. “Oh, poor thing,” he muttered, tone sympathetic.
“Mreeeep!” the cat agreed, tail thumping again.
Jay carefully adjusted his grip on the cat, trying to pick it up. Its foot needed cleaning, and walking around on it was clearly doing it no good—he’d have to see if there was a place nearby that could help.
The cat seemed to hesitate, torn between jumping down from Jay’s arms and accepting this, and after a moment, it leaned up against him, putting its cheek against his shoulder and purring.
Shit, it’s cute. Horrible monstrosities in the sky or not, it did make him feel a little more secure.
He settled the cat in his arms as he rose again, looking around. For a while, he just walked, unwilling to knock on a house door after dark even if there were lanterns there, looking for a place that might be open. Finally, he found a place with a sign outside reading The Cat in His Cups, with a pub-style window, all criss-cross grating. Fiddle music could be heard from the inside, and the place looked well-lit, so he opened the door.
There was in fact a fiddler sitting up in stage, and several people at their tables, having dinner or drink, but the place was largely abandoned. Some of the customers glanced up at him with worried faces as he entered, then away, uninterested or unwilling to get involved.
That was fine. He carried the cat up to the bar, holding it carefully, as the barman—a handsome black man with a puff ponytail—came over to greet him. “Can I help you—?”
“Sorry to bring a pet in,” Jay began. “But this guy seems to be hurt, and I was wondering if I could get a little water to help clean his foot with?”
The bartender’s brows rose. “Of course. Poor little thing. You… just found it like that, you didn’t do anything, right?”
“No, of course not,” Jay protested. “I saw it limping so… I figured I’d try to help.”
“Good on you, lad,” the bartender said. “It’s illegal to kill a cat here, and I shouldn’t think anyone would look kindly on you for hurting one. But if you’re helping him out, you’ll surely earn some favor.” He poured a glass of water from a pitcher and grabbed a clean towel from under the bar, offering both over.
Jay nodded his thanks. “Can I put it on the bar while I get its foot clean?”
“Sure, don’t mind that you do, as long as you keep your grip on it,” the bartender said, easily. “Can I get you anything yourself?”
Carefully depositing the cat on the bar, Jay shook his head. “I don’t… have any local currency,” he said. “I’m, um, new? New to dream-walking.”
The bartender seemed more surprised at that. “A waking-worlder whose talent clicked, huh? Well, congratulations. Most of us are the descendants of dreamers ourselves; welcome to Ulthar.”
“Ulthar,” Jay repeated. “Is that the city or the country or—”
“Just this town, lad,” the bartender said, watching as the cat obediently let Jay tilt it onto its side. “We’re in the West continent, near the river Skai. The West continent is the most settled one, so if you find yourself travelling to a city, you’ll usually, though not certainly, be around here. Or are you here to stay?”
Jay shook his head. He dabbed the cloth into the water, then carefully pressed it to the cat’s foot. The cat let out a whine, but spread its toes, tail thumping as it gazed mournfully up at him. “I’m just… learning more,” he said. “I’m trying to get better at dreaming and… help others, I suppose.” Camden came to mind again. “I know someone who’s under some sort of sea curse?”
“Don’t know anything about that here,” the bartender said. “We live a quiet, safe life here in Ulthar. A port town might have more information?”
Nodding, Jay sighed. “Speaking of port towns,” he said, “I don’t suppose you have a map?”
“I suppose I could help you with one of those,” the bartender said. “Since you’re here being so kind to that poor creature.”
“It’s like it understands that I’m trying to help,” Jay said, watching the way the cat allowed him to clean its wound, even though it was trembling.
“Aye, probably,” the barkeeper agreed. “They’re smart beasts. Good pets. Almost everyone has one.”
Jay smiled a little. “I don’t have one myself,” he said. “My old place didn’t allow them on the lease. But I like them.”
“Figure the little beastie can tell,” the bartender said fondly. “One moment.”
He headed into a back room, and Jay finished cleaning up around the wound. Removing the dirt and old blood got it bleeding again, a bit sluggishly, and he pressed the cloth to the cat’s foot to try to stem it, gently petting its head and earning a nuzzling into his palm in return.
“Here you go,” the barkeep said, returning and unrolling a scroll. “Study the map as much as you want, though I’ll need it back.”
Jay pulled the cat back into his arms, so he could hold the cloth to its foot and look at the same time. As he examined it, his heart sank a little.
The world of the Dreamlands was big and, more to the point, not clearly divided into areas that would narrow down where Grace had gone—if it was even here, and not something else her dreaming had permitted her. The continents made a big jagged loop around a middle ocean, which was divided into smaller seas in a z-shape. And a full three of the continents had deserts on them—all but the North.
He resigned himself to get what information he could, at least. “Are any of these cities made of black spires?”
“Black spires?” The barkeeper had to think about it, and the result he came up with was dubious at best. “Maybe Dylath-Leen? I’d call it more obelisks myself.”
It might be close enough to count, but he wasn’t sure. Still, there was one more name he’d been told, which didn’t seem to be on this map. “I’m also looking to find where the Library of Celaeno is.”
The bartender seemed taken aback at that. “Celaeno? That’s a star.”
“It’s not in the Dreamlands,” the bartender said, drumming his fingers on the bar. “I mean, it’s connected to it. Those Great Old Ones all have portals here and there, especially through the dreams of men, so the Dreamlands have exits into their worlds as they do into the waking world. The Stalker Among the Stars makes frequent use of the portals here, so we know of their existence, though I don’t know of any humans who’ve made use of them.”
Jay winced a little. “Who? Are they…” he glanced out the window at the awful sky.
The barkeeper’s expression darkened. “Not those,” he said. “Those started to show up some years ago. More and more, they’ve been gathering. So far, they haven’t broken through, so there’s only so much worrying, you know? Someone will deal with it.”
Actually, that seemed plenty worrying. “How long ago?”
“Mm. Just under a decade by a waking-worlder’s time?” the barkeeper wagered. “Time passes differently when you’re here physically. It’s slower, so I’m just guessing off what I saw.”
That wasn’t great.”…If the Stalker Among the Stars isn’t one of those, what is it?”
“You know. The Crawling Chaos.” He lowered his voice. “Nyarlathotep. He fancies himself a protector of the Dreamlands, as little respect as he shows for it. So if you’re looking for the Library of Celaeno, you’ll need to look outside your world and mine. At best, the Dreamlands is a stepping stone to it, and it is a stepping stone to the Dreamlands—among other realms.”
Jay was silent, thinking back to the Library—and the painting he’d found himself in front of when he’d gone there. A city full of black domes and spires.
“I see,” he said, chilled. “That’s not great.”
“Why’s that, lad?”
Jay opened his mouth to answer, but his voice seemed to be coming from far away, hard to pull out. For a moment, he felt dizzy, scared—had they broken through? Was this the end?—and tried to focus on the texture of the cat in his arms, the pressure on its paw, as if that would save him from whatever was happening.
It did not; he was waking up.
He woke up dry-mouthed in Aunt Grace’s—his—room, shaking as the first light of dawn was beginning to show through the window, the dissolution of that dream sitting uneasy in him, nearly a shock. Trying to steady himself, he curled on his side, tightening his arms around the bundle of blankets he was clinging onto.
“Mrew,” it said, protesting.
[Please suggest an action in the Comments!
Some thoughts on what to do this morning might be a good idea.]