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Jay nodded slowly. “I don’t see any reason not to take a look,” he agreed. “We might lose track of the Byakhee, but we can follow up on anything else later. So if you’ve got a hunch, let’s go.”
“A hunch… I suppose so,” Louis said. He squeezed Jay’s arm, brief and fond, then rose. “Come on, then.”
The two of them headed over to the house, Jay peering up as he went to see if he could see in through any windows to get an idea of what might be in there. But with the overcast, cloudy sky threatening a storm, and the broken windows making tattered curtains flap in the breeze, he wasn’t able to make out anything, only darkness waiting inside.
Something about the house made his hackles raise—anticipation, perhaps, or seeing a house that looked so much like the one he’d just inherited in such a condition of disrepair, but he didn’t say another word about it as they both headed to the front door. He hoped, perhaps, that it would be locked—though he didn’t think it would much matter if it were. The wood of the door had the tell-tale soft look of having rotted over time and exposure to water; it wouldn’t take much to break the door’s lock and head in anyway.
It didn’t matter. Louis tried the knob and the door swung open at once with a long, ominous creak.
They entered to find the place set up with old luxury inside: fancy old furniture everywhere, rotting lace hanging from tabletops, fancy silver vases and china out in the living room, to the left of the flight to the second floor. Jay started out that way to begin exploring, then hesitated as Louis moved, without hesitation, for the stairs. “Louis?”
“I just want to check something,” Louis said, his voice vague. Jay looked between the two directions—it might be faster if they split up, but if the flute was here, he didn’t really fancy Louis coming across it on his own. Not because he didn’t trust Louis—though who knew if the flute had some kind of One Ring like call—but because it was his responsibility.
Besides, there might be scavengers here too, or even Byakhee that had come in through the window, and he trusted their chances better together than apart.
So he scurried up after Louis, glancing down at the stained stair runner. It looked worn down the center the most, as if feet had tread a path in it through sheer erosion over the years, and something about that made him even more uneasy. It reminded him of something, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on what.
“Louis—” he began, but Louis was continuing with purpose down the hallway, not even glancing around, ignoring the office door, the attic door, the bathroom door, heading to the bedroom. “Louis.“
Finally, Louis glanced back. “Sorry,” he said. “I just have a feeling. I just want to check something quickly.”
He opened the bedroom door and went inside. Jay swore under his breath, his nerves frayed, stomach aching, and chased after.
The room was largely barren—unlike the downstairs, whatever dressers or tables or other things had been in this room had long since been stripped away, and all that was left was a large four-poster bed with tattered cloth hanging from it. Sitting in the bed, facing the window, was what looked, at first glance, to be an old man: thin, with long hair hanging ragged around his shoulders and falling forward to obscure his bowed face, his fancy white suit dirtied and torn. His skin, where Jay observed his hands clasped before him, had gone from caucasian white to a pallid shade, something that reminded him of insect larvae, maggots.
A second glance revealed that the man wasn’t as old as Jay had thought he was. His hair wasn’t fully gray—partially there, certainly, brown with streaks of silver, and with a proper haircut Jay thought he would look to be in his sixties at the outside, as far as Jay could guess without seeing the man’s face. For all that his head was bowed, his back was straight, and he sat primly, patient.
Louis made a soft sound, and the man’s face turned—or, at least, where his face should be.
It was gone entirely, the skin peeled away and revealing a sticky red mess; his eyes, too, had been gouged out or had been lost without the lids to protect them, simply holes in his face, though he nevertheless tilted his head as if looking them over. The muscles of his face pulsed as the man reacted to their presence, lips parting, tongue coming out to wet his lips. Those lips curled in a smile a moment later that, under other circumstances, Jay thought would have been polite, perhaps even friendly. “Who’s there?” the man called, his voice a bit creaky with disuse, but nevertheless still strong, even resonant.
Jay opened his mouth to apologize to the man—whatever else was going on, it was clear he lived here and that they’d broken into his house—but Louis interrupted, shoving his hands in his pockets and hunching his shoulders.
“You’re dead,” Louis said.
The man’s gaze—if he had one—snapped to Louis at that. “Oh, Louis,” the man said affably. “Yes, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? But you must realize that death means nothing to an inhabitant of Carcosa. Were you to bury us, we would beg at the hearse and pallbearers to release us, and should they not, would claw at the inside of our coffin until eternity or the coming of the king. Were you to leave our body to nature in other ways, to toss it away or hide it somewhere it might not be found, we might have other options. I hope you keep that in mind for yourself when your time is to come, dear boy.”
“I’ll keep it in mind, Dr. Archer,” Louis said, tone oddly neutral, hard to read. “Yet, if you’re here now in the flesh, are you not at risk? There are plenty of things roaming the lost city, sir.”
“Certainly, it’s possible,” Dr. Archer said, still friendly. “More can happen to me here than on earth. But I hope to soon return to earth again, just as the king shall return.”
“How so?” Louis had just the hint of sarcasm in his voice now. “Riding to earth on a Byakhee? Even if you could catch one, it would tear you to pieces.”
“Oh, no, they’re good children,” Dr. Archer said. “Better than most. They’re messengers of the king, and although it took some work to communicate with them, I’ve had some time to do so, you know how it is. I’ve made it so they recognize myself as a messenger as well, and obey me. Why, I’ve sent them on a task now to help our return to earth, though I could recall them if needed.”
“A task, Dr. Archer?” Louis lifted a hand, waving it, as if to see if Dr. Archer could see him, but the man gave no visible response. “Doing what?”
“Oh, I’m not sure you need to know that,” Dr. Archer said. “Just leave it to me, Louis, you know I’ll take care of everything.”
Louis put his finger to his lips at Jay, and Jay understood; since he hadn’t said anything yet, it was possible that Dr. Archer didn’t know Louis had company. He nodded, a bit uncertain about where Louis was going with this.
“Really. I’m desperately curious, Dr. Archer. Are they scavenging for food for you? You must live like a barbarian out here,” Louis said. “Though I don’t see how that would help your return to earth?”
“Our,” Dr. Archer repeated. “No, well, recently, something’s been moving out there. Through space, through the sky, making their way to earth. And there’s something here that is tied to them. It’s a big city out there, you know, and I but a poor old man who could not explore the whole thing myself, but I have had them looking in my stead, and I think we have it all figured out now. Perhaps you have arrived just in time, my boy.”
“I’m sure I have.” Louis pulled his other hand out of his pocket, holding a switchblade knife. “And I’m glad of it. I have missed you, Dr. Archer. I’ve spent so many years alone, regretting so much. I’d like to make amends, and be here for you in your hour of triumph. Would you allow it?”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” Dr. Archer murmured.
“I always knew you had it in you to manage something like this,” Louis said. His voice had warmed, fondness suffusing it as he sighed, thumbed open his switchblade, and added, “Ah, jeez. Let me come over and hold you properly, you terrible old man.”
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