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Jay lay still for a long moment, hesitating. He was ready to go, he was determined to go, but who to take?
Camden and Hannah were out; he liked Camden well enough, but he barely knew either of them, and didn’t want to drag them into this mess. Ashesh was out as well—while Jay intended to summon him once he’d found the item, and was very sure Ashesh could handle himself, he didn’t exactly think he’d feel more protected if he took the Crawling Chaos along as a companion to help be his touchstone to sanity and humanity.
Which left Louis or… well, or Ulthar.
Ulthar was, ultimately, a cat. Maybe a strange, dreamworld cat, but he could get hurt or killed—had been hurt when Jay had encountered him. And the whole warning against killing a cat of Ulthar wouldn’t exist if, well, they couldn’t be killed. And going through the door meant they’d be going physically, so Ulthar’s injured foot could be a problem, too.
Still, he felt that Ulthar would protect him, just like he’d protect Ulthar. Ulthar was a sense of comfort and home to him. If he took Ulthar with him, then he’d always, always be able to touch into his sense of humanity, of the desire to protect and love something smaller and better than himself.
And then there was Louis.
Louis was… well, his lover, apparently. His friend, he believed. Someone who had chosen to step out of his role in order to help Jay with his goals, someone who seemed to need tenderness and kindness in his life. Louis could consent to this journey and provide commentary, thoughts, insight. There wouldn’t be any dependence there, just an educated second opinion from someone he was pretty willing to trust.
But on the other hand, Louis wasn’t entirely well. Jay had already seen Louis struggle with emotions, disassociate, retreat into apathy. And there were the issues with Louis’s god on top of things. If Louis was to be Jay’s touchstone, he would need to be Louis’s, too. He knew that.
Jay took a deep breath, and made his decision. Louis at least deserved the right to choose if he wanted to come along. If he chose to, then Jay would take him. If Louis didn’t feel ready, Jay wouldn’t demand—and that’s when he could see if his weird alien cat wanted to tag along.
He shifted, nudging Louis, who stirred, eyes flicking open behind his mask. It had slipped down into the usual—likely more comfortable—position while he slept.
“Jay?” Louis murmured.
“Hey, can you wake up?” Jay asked. “I know it’s early—” The clock said it was around dawn, though the sky outside seemed too dark for that, thick with what he hoped were clouds. “—But I’ve got the key now.”
“To go find that flute—” Jay quickly summarized everything that had happened when he’d gone to the Library, making sure to leave no part out. It only seemed fair that Louis be able to make this choice as informed as Jay himself was.
“Ah,” Louis said, when Jay was finished. “Then, who are you taking?”
Jay swallowed. Don’t take it personally if he won’t, he told himself. Saving the world now for the eventual coming of his god might be Louis’s goal, but that didn’t mean he would be willing to invest in it beyond having granted Jay a Sign. “I was wondering if you would be willing to come.”
Louis tilted his head, watching Jay with a strangely intense curiosity. He took a long moment, thinking through it, then finally nodded. “I’ll come,” he said. “Now?”
“I really don’t want to put off saving the world in case, uh, I put it off too long.”
“Fair,” Louis said. He stretched, a gorgeous picture as the blankets rode low on his hips, then rose to pick up his clothes from where he’d dropped them. “Let me get cleaned up and ready, then.”
“Of course,” Jay said, relieved. “I have to too, you know?”
He did. Uncertain what sort of weather to prepare for, he put on a t-shirt and jeans, along with a jacket. If it was too hot wherever he went, he could at least strip down a little. If it was too cold… well, he imagined if it was arctic level, Grace would have warned him.
Once he’d dressed, Jay sat on the bed again and petted Ulthar, who let out a sleepy mrrp and thumped his tail, but didn’t otherwise move. He pulled out his phone, hesitated, then sent Camden a text. They’d started to become friends, and he thought that if something happened to him, if he weren’t able to come back, Camden would want to know.
Hey man, hope your volume is off so I don’t wake you. I’m briefly leaving this world, to try to find something that should keep us from being invaded by horrible extraplanar beings. I’m hoping I’ll be back, but if I vanish… well, if the world’s still here, I’m leaving a spare set of keys buried under the bush to the left of my front door. I have a cat now, so please come in and feed it. Thanks for watching out for me, hopefully I’ll be able to laugh this off with you in person later.
Yeah, that about covered it. He sent it, headed out to bury his original set of keys—the ones that were only the front and back door, not the set Ashesh had given him—then came back in and rounded up the Signs from the various locations that he’d stashed them.
By the time he was done, Louis had finished in the bathroom and was waiting outside the office for him, patient. Jay came up, leaning up to give him a kiss on the masked cheek, treating it like his real face. “You ready? Nothing you need to take care of at home?”
“…No. I don’t have anything that will be affected if I don’t return.” Louis seemed to take a moment to decide if that was depressing or not, then just shrugged at himself. “So let’s go.”
Jay led the way downstairs, to that strange mysterious freestanding door. The Signs he was carrying were warming in his clothes; he could feel them, pulsing like something living. In return, the same marks around the lock were shifting as if alive, squirming.
“I know,” Jay murmured at it. “But I’m not going to use any of you.”
He took out the key that Grace had left him, and inserted it in the lock. Then, before he turned it, he reached out behind himself, offering his other hand to Louis. “Hold on, okay?” he said. “I don’t know if it’s fine for us to walk separately or not as we’re going through the portal, but I don’t want to risk it.”
Louis slid his hand into Jay’s, holding snugly. “All right,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Jay turned the key, hearing it click. Then he took hold of the doorknob and turned, opening the door. A swirling, misty void was within, looking cold and uninviting. For a moment, Jay couldn’t make his legs move.
And then he shook himself, squeezed Louis’s hand, and stepped through.
He found himself in an unfamiliar cottage house, directly facing an enormous painting of a black city, broken and repaired with gold. He didn’t even take a moment to look around, not wanting to get distracted. Grace had told him she was going to put him in a place in the Dreamlands that was right in front of a the portal that would take him to the world where she’d dropped the Flute, and so he pressed on, trying to enter the painting as if it, too, was another misty void. He pulled on Louis’s hand, making sure that they went together.
They entered it. The passage was soft around him, then grew firm, and he took a last step forward to find himself, with Louis behind him, squeezing their way out of a small cave opening in a cliff face.
They emerged onto a beach. It had pebbles rather than sand, worn smooth with the passage of time, with an enormous lake stretching in front of them. The waters rocked and churned, almost completely obscured by the clouds of fog rolling across them; even through it, he thought he saw huge reeds moving in the waters, or perhaps the tentacles of great creatures in there. Across the lake, a tall twisted black palace rose, backlit by two huge moons, both full and nearly touching each other.
On this side, a path ran along the beach toward some shattered ruins of old buildings, the start to an old city that had clearly been long destroyed and left to rot. That path split before reaching the ruins, one fork leading on into the, the other leading through some woods; beyond those woods, he could see black spires, tall domes, lights on in their windows. An occupied city, still in use, perhaps thriving after the old city on its outskirts had died out.
Jay felt Louis drop his hand, and turned to ask him what he thought, but Louis was looking around with his eyes huge behind his mask.
“This is Carcosa,” Louis said airlessly. “I’ve seen it in my nightmares. This is the lake Hali. That is the palace, where they reenact the coming of the king.” He raised his hands to his face, his mask. “Am I the Stranger here? Will I be sacrificed? No, it’s fine, since this isn’t the palace, it’s fine. Someone is already acting that role there, and my role is different on Earth.”
“Hey.” Jay took his hands, squeezing them, pulling them down again. “Look at me.”
Louis looked, eyes still wide.
“We’re going to be okay,” Jay said. “We’ve got to decide which way to go, though. What do you think? Abandoned city, new city, try to cross the lake to go to the palace? Or do you think it fell into the waters?”
Louis let out a shudder, then abruptly became calm again. “I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem to have been found, though, so we have to consider what that means in terms of where the Flute ended up. The City of Carcosa may or may not be Hastur, but people and monsters are said to live there. The Palace hosts the royal family—at least, in the play. I don’t know what the reality is. The Lake? They say that Hastur lives in lake Hali, along with… other things. And the destroyed city… I don’t know anything about which city that could be. They say Carcosa absorbs cities which are lost to time in other worlds and takes it into its own body, and so it could be any lost city.”
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