[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]
“Thanks,” Jay said, taking the robe and pulling it on hurriedly. It was hard to feel embarrassed, under the circumstances—if Yidhra was an ancient god who’d been around since humans began, it was nothing she hadn’t seen before. “But before I get into any of this, what is that?”
He pointed to the painting, still frozen as it had been when he entered: Louis, asleep, a horned creature, four-limbed and too-long, slinking low to the ground as it entered the room. He gestured in a circle around the beast, just in case Yidhra were likely to deliberately misinterpret the situation.
She looked over, brows raised. “That’s a cat.”
“Like hell that’s—”
“It’s one of the cats of Ulthar,” she said, her tone slightly put-upon at his response. “You’re just seeing its other form through the filter of the portrait.”
Drawing a deep breath, Jay forced himself to chill again. Okay, so that was a lot more reassuring than what he’d been fearing. And Ulthar had been pawing at the door to get in; he must have just managed to wiggle it open.
A cat with a horned hybrid form was not the weirdest thing that had happened to him today, he reminded himself.
“Okay,” he said. “Sorry, thanks. I was thinking that I’d come back to find Louis eaten.”
“I mean, I don’t know if he’s killed any cats or not. If he has, you’re out of luck.”
Jay made a face. “I can’t imagine him doing that,” he said. Besides, Ulthar had seemed fine with Louis. “…That information, about the cat, was it from the library or from you?”
“I’ve spent enough time here it’s basically both,” Yidhra said with a faint, melodic laugh. “You could find that information here, but no, I’ve just seen those cats before.”
“So if I ask you things, will you just tell me, or send me to find the information?” he asked. “Does this library have everything? Like, does it update with things as they happen? Or is it like a normal library and only has things that people have written and donated to the library?”
She shrugged, smiling and tucking a lock of her hair behind a too-pointed ear. “Either, or both. I can tell you most things. If I don’t know, or if you don’t trust my answers, I can tell you where to look it up. The library has everything that has been written down that touches on our reality: forbidden knowledge, information about the gods and their worlds, every spell and every item and so on. It doesn’t have to have been donated: if it has been written and is true, it’s here.”
He nodded, tightening the robe about himself a little more, cold. “And what are the rules? You told me I couldn’t take information out without a Sign, but…”
“The books can’t leave the building,” she said. “However, you can copy down information from anything and take it out with you, if you need to. I know certain texts have already made their way to earth like that. No damaging books. Behave like a decent person. No fucking in the stacks, don’t get food crumbs in pages, you know. The usual.”
“The usual,” he echoed wryly, managing a little smile. “So there’s no cost?”
“Not if you don’t break the rules,” she said. “Other than whatever risk you put yourself at for learning information, or the risk you’ve put yourself in by laying claim to Signs at all.”
He scrubbed hands through his hair. “I need to know where you stand in this,” he said. “You don’t want the world to end?”
“You say ‘the’ like it’ll only be one,” she said, then shook her head. “No. I need people. I don’t continue to evolve unless people continue to evolve. I can only learn the things that other people have learned. Each new technology, each new discovery, each new ability, it’s closed to me without others. Those amorphous gods will destroy me along with everyone else, sooner or later. If they’re all that’s left, I’ll stagnate.”
That was more or less what Jay was hoping he’d hear. It meant that she was invested in him knowing the truth. “Do you know what’s happened?”
“I do. Do you?”
“I think so,” he said. “But… why haven’t you done anything about it yourself, then?”
She shook her head, smiling. “I can’t. If I touched it… look, we’re not enemies, but we’re not friends, either. I’m not going to take hold of Azathoth’s flute. But you’re of the bloodline given a Quest to steal it. You could probably manage to take hold of it for a moment or two.”
“It can’t come down to me.”
“If you can’t do it, I’m sure we’ll all fight the elders as they invade,” she said. “Though I don’t think your world will enjoy that much either.”
Jay began to pace, trying helplessly to get his rush of anxiety and nerves out. “Okay, fair,” he said. “So, I can handle the flute?”
“You might go mad,” she said simply. “I’d get to it and then use that Sign of Nyarlathotep you have to put it back in the hands of the messenger. If you have to pick it up, be quick about it. Your bloodline will only help for a short while. Don’t linger, don’t spend too much time examining it, do not blow into it.”
He nodded. “Okay. Don’t touch it if it’s not necessary, got it. Do I have to get past those… ‘amorphous gods’ to get to it?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Right now, they seems interested in breaking into the worlds. There’s a barrier to most of us, you know. Some of us have figured out ways around it, or portals, but in general, unfettered access isn’t something we have to all worlds. So there’s that.”
Uneasy, Jay chewed the inside of his cheek. “So I guess the key is finding the location. Then getting there.” An idea dawned. “I—you said anything that was written that involves this sort of thing comes here?”
“Then I’d like to see the section of things Aunt Grace wrote,” Jay said. “A bunch of her files got corrupted, and—look, a lot of them were older than when this happened, maybe all of them, but they might have some information.”
Yidhra grinned. “You’re a smart one, aren’t you? I like you. All right, behold.” She turned, gesturing to the shelf next to him.
“It’s right here?”
“So’s the portal we made to her room,” Yidhra said.
Fair enough. He pulled a few notebooks down and began to flip through them.
Even skimming, now that only the information she’d written that related to this sort of thing was included, he very quickly began to get a picture of what her secret life had been like. As a young journalist, while investigating into a cult situation, she ended up in Kingsport; from there, she grew attached, more interested and involved, nearly obsessive, but because she’d been investigating them all, she held them all at arms length even while she grew closer to the people as individuals. Eventually, she began to enter the Dreamlands, and explored there, meeting Yidhra, growing fascinated with the potential of all these worlds, these gods, with the entirety of reality being much bigger than most people realized.
She wrote, also, of her love affair with Yidhra, of the impossible depth of her passion that she suspected wasn’t returned, of her longing to touch on someone who had devoured humans throughout the eras and became the pinnacle of human evolution without ever being human herself. Jay thought of the love letters that Grace had never sent, and wondered if there were copies here, and if Yidhra had read them.
Toward the end, her Dream-Quest: To steal the flute. Dream-Quests were meant to be nearly impossible things; those who won would be granted the ability to create their own realm in the Dreamlands, to dwell there everafter, undying. She had not wanted to die of old age, not with so much of the greater reality left undiscovered to her. So she had embarked on the quest when already getting on in years, and it took her fifteen years to complete. Almost too late. Her goal was to return it to Nyarlathotep as proof, but, as Jay had already read, she’d lost it on the way.
And then, at the very end of the notebook, there was a handwritten page:
Jay, if you are reading this,
I am sorry to have left such a task to you. I hoped to undo my own mess, but I am old, and I must die or I must return to the Dreamlands to live hereafter. I think of the way you always sat at my feet to listen to my stories, and I believe that you will be able to find the wonder in all of this horror, the love in all of this madness.
I was able to track down the location where I must have lost the Flute, but I dare not write it down in case this note is read by the wrong eyes. If this is happening when the Flute is in no hands, imagine what it will do in the wrong hands. I cannot go there to do it myself, as it is not in the Dreamlands, but in one of the other realms I passed through while weaving back and forth, and to leave the Dreamlands for me now is a true death. I am sorry, Jay, to have to put this weight on your slender shoulders. I don’t know how old you will be when you see this, but when I last saw you, you were still a child, a gangly awkward teenager who nevertheless still listened to this old woman.
Instead of telling you, I have made a key out of dreamstuff that you can use on that door. Using that key will take you, physically and in reality, right to the place in the Dreamlands that you can pass through into that other world. If you have any Signs—and I hope you do, if you are reading this in the Library of Celaeno—then take them with you for whatever protection they afford. I have drawn the key below. Ask sweet Yidhra to remove it from the page for you.
And you don’t have to come alone. You can come alone if you judge it best, and I do leave it to your judgment. It’s just that I was lonely by the end, and perhaps working alone caused my failure, so I thought I would work in the ability to take one other person or creature. Do not bring anyone into this who was completely unaware or uninvolved, of course! And do not bring more than one person—I could only grant passage to so many in the portal, and I do not want you to be trapped and have to find your own way back. But, yes, if you wish, you may bring a friend. Staying sane and keeping yourself whole is always easier with a touchstone.
If all goes well, I’ve given Yidhra instructions to help you find my new home so we can meet again and you can give me what-for after all I’ve done to you. But I’m ashamed to face you until this is fixed, and have asked her to not give you any information on my location until then. If you find me yourself, so be it, but please… prioritize the world over scolding this old biddy.
A sketch of a key was drawn at the bottom of the note.
Jay drew a deep, unsteady breath as he read, then turned that last page, holding it wordlessly out to Yidhra. She barely glanced over it—perhaps she’d read it already, or perhaps it took her no time at all to read anything—and then she reached out, plucking the sketch out of the page and handing him a real iron key, still looking as if it was made of ballpoint on paper.
He closed his fingers around it, swallowing. “I guess it’s okay if I visit her when this is all over?” he asked, tentatively.
“Sure,” she said. “She seemed down with that. You going to go get it all over with now, then?”
“Is there a tracker that can help find the flute?” he asked, desperately.
“No,” she said. “I imagine you’ll have to look around in wherever it is she has decided to make a portal to.”
“Then…” That seemed to be all the questions he’d thought of. He knew how to get to where the flute was, what to do and what not to do when he found it, that he could use the Signs for protection if needed. That Aunt Grace really was out there, that he could go see her when this was all over. Any other information he wanted to learn, in order to figure out his new life in the middle of all this eldritch nonsense, could wait until he’d saved the world.
The big question he was left with was if he should go alone, or, if he did bring someone or some creature, who or what that should be. But that wasn’t something Yidhra or the library could help him with.
“Then I’m ready,” he said—and woke up in his bed with a start, Louis asleep next to him, Ulthar curled up on his feet.
[Please suggest an action in the Comments!]