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Jay closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath, and for a moment, he let himself just feel his wants. He didn’t have a choice whether or not to feel them, perhaps; they were washing over him unbidden, a deep hunger, every frustration and longing welling up from a bottomless pit he’d kept deeply stoppered for so many years—but he let himself think it was a choice regardless.
He wanted to save the world, of course, that was his most immediate thought, and the biggest contradiction with the flute, the thing, the creature in his hands, begging him to play it. He knew he could save the world by giving the flute up, returning it to its proper place with the blind god in the center of the cosmos—but he knew, too, because it told him, that he could save the world by playing it. If he conducted those masses of amorphous gods elsewhere, they would not be free to roam into his reality, except in the ways he let them.
But then, it wouldn’t be his reality any longer. The gods would come with him, and he would need to leave to keep the world safe.
And he didn’t want that—he wanted his home, a home, to go home safely and make sure that Louis got home safely too. And maybe, he thought, his own home wasn’t actually his home. It was still full of Aunt Grace’s things, not his. He had no job in Kingsport. His family was far away. And maybe Louis’s home wasn’t really a home for Louis, either. It had belonged to Dr. Archer, and was taken over by Louis after Dr. Archer’s untimely death. No wonder it looked too old for him, all faded glory and decrepit luxury. Maybe a new place would be better, one he could make for both of them, a better home that would be theirs to share, to build from the ground up—
But he thought of a cat, curled up on his bed, waiting for his return. He thought of people he’d just begun to meet and get to know. A text that he’d sent to someone, who would surely be waiting for another to see if he lived, a friend that he’d only just begun to make who would nevertheless be worried for him. Those goods that filled his home didn’t have to stay there; they could get unloaded at the antique store, with Hannah, who had asked for a surprise from him, a promise he hadn’t yet kept. The house was just a house; he could do with it whatever he wanted.
And Louis? He couldn’t decide that for Louis, either. If Louis wanted to get rid of anything, he could. If he wanted to get anything of his own, he could. Jay had known Louis for barely a couple of days; he didn’t have the right to take him away, whisk him off to another world.
Oh, but he wanted that too. He wanted to make his relationship with Louis stronger, better. To have a real romance, erotic and passionate and tender. To uncover everything that Louis would let him uncover, and things he didn’t know existed to uncover. He wanted to learn Louis inside out, become everything Louis could want.
Which was another want of his: connection, he wanted connection. Far away from what had been his home, he wanted to know others, he wanted to be known by others. He wanted friends, he wanted to understand the people around him who he’d just met. Everyone seemed to be living out their own story in a way that he wasn’t exactly used to, and even if those stories were horrible—as they might be, with what he’d seen from Louis, from Camden’s curse, from Hannah’s aunt, from whatever happened to his neighbor before Ashesh showed up. Even if they were horrible, he wanted to be a part of them. He wanted to find out what was next in the strange town he had found himself in, find out what was next in his own story, his own life. Maybe what he saw here would make him want to leave, and with the flute, he wouldn’t have to worry about the petty details of that. He could go anywhere, not worry about money, housing, anything. He could travel reality carried on the backs of his own entourage, he could see everything about everyone around him—
—But only by peeling these people open, by learning things through arcane means instead of through discovering them person to person. Could he face his great-aunt Grace again if he did that?
And he wanted to see her again. He missed her, even though she’d been the one who put him in this position, or because of it; he missed hearing her stories and her laugh, and knowing she was dead and he could never see her again had morphed into needing to see the dream she’d created for herself instead of death. But with this power, he could pull her out of her dream, pull her out of death, make her live and walk again so things could be like they used to be instead of the horrible uncanny thing it was now. So she could come to family gatherings, so he could listen to her stories, and it not just be him alone, without anyone else who had loved her being able to know that she was still around, somewhere—
No, but she had chosen that, known that her time in this world had been over, that she had to pass from it one way or another, and had decided to live on, even if it required separation. She had crafted her own world, but out of dreams, not out of the stuff of the stars, not out of the power in his hands right now. She had dropped the flute rather than do that. He couldn’t change that decision for her. And he could still see her again, if he dreamed, if he learned how to dream more. And maybe he wanted that for his own sake as well. Maybe, knowing there was another entire world out there, he wanted to explore it, to see it. Maybe he wanted to go back to Ulthar and take a drink this time. Maybe he wanted to explore the obelisks of Dylath-Leen, to wander the four continents, and do so knowing the ability and drive both came from within. Perhaps he could be borne there in an instant on a dais made of the eldermost life, the flute reminded him, but maybe the people who lived there, who lived their whole lives in a world he only knew of through dreams, deserved a life free from those elder gods, just as much as his own world did.
No, he thought, no. What he wanted, in the end, was to live an interesting life, a happy life, a healthy life, just whatever his life was. And maybe it wouldn’t always be interesting; maybe he’d go back to where he came from, dive back into late nights coding and never finding a place to park and riding the light rail instead of trying, and overpriced coffee and corporate buildings taking over the downtown. Maybe it wouldn’t always be healthy; either physical health, always unreliable, or he might stay in Kingsport and risk all the madness and glory and all the dangers it had to offer him, cults and curses and masks and Signs and untrusting farmers and bad takeout. Maybe he wouldn’t always be happy, wherever he ended up.
But what he wanted was something he could create on his own. The flute could give him anything he asked for—just not how he wanted it. Knowledge, not discovery; power, not compromise; adoration, but not love. He didn’t need the flute to craft a new reality for him. He didn’t even need a dream to craft it, either. Discovery, connection, love—they were all his to create in his own way, to craft not as gods do by forcing reality to bend, but as humans do, through the time and energy he put in.
Jay’s hands trembled. The one that raised, finally, was not the one carrying the flute, but the one carrying Nyarlathotep’s ankh. In the face of chaos, he shouted, “Nyarlathotep, Crawling Chaos, Stalker Among the Stars, Ashesh, come here!”
And he was back in the room again. Louis was on the floor, head pressed down, bowing deeply toward the window. Dr. Archer was some feet away now, covered in a swarm of Byakhee. He was not screaming, or moving.
There was something else here, something behind Jay, near the window, whatever it was Louis had bowed to in order avert his face from. It had a heavy presence, a slow presence, something ominous and uncanny and entirely wrong, Jay started to turn to see what was there.
But before he could, a black light sparked in front of him, churning into hideous life, writhing and impossible, unspeakable tentacles and blood and tongues and a million eyes and a billion other things that compressed into Ashesh’s form—or something like it, currently female-bodied, long and lean and lovely, with black hair all unbound, wearing a black lace keyhole dress.
With a quick motion, Ashesh snatched the flute from Jay, and abruptly, they were out of Carcosa entirely, back in the Dreamlands, in the cottage house and standing in front of the painting that had been their portal from the Dreamlands into that dread world. Dr. Archer hadn’t come along, and neither had the thing at the window.
Louis, beside him, slowly raised his head from the floor.
“Whoops,” Ashesh said, tossing the flute carelessly from hand to hand. “Didn’t think you two would want to stick around for that one coming in. Not even you, Mr. Castaigne.”
“I sort of did want,” Louis mumbled, but at the same time, he sounded relieved.
“‘Course you did, bud.” Ashesh flipped the flute up, then caught it by its bulb, spinning it on a finger. “But you’ll have to earn it the proper way, won’t you?”
Jay crouched, trying to find something to focus on to calm his heart, which felt like it was going to scratch its way out of his chest. He ran a careful hand over Louis’s back, examining his wounds. “Nothing too bad,” he said uneasily. “I think.”
“You’ll want to pour some hydrogen peroxide over them,” Ashesh advised, flashing teeth in a bright grin. “Byakhee are pretty gross. It’ll sting like a motherfucker, but you like that anyway.”
Louis sighed, that calm seeming to wash over him again. He leaned into Jay’s touch briefly. “Thanks for your advice,” he told Ashesh.
“You’re welcome,” Ashesh said, then added, “I’m going to skedaddle now; I need to get this baby back to my father. It’s been fun, you guys.”
And with a wink, Nyarlathotep was gone, and so was the flute, leaving the two of them alone in the small cottage.
They looked at each other, and for all that most of Louis’s face was obscured, Jay could see the exhaustion on it: the pain of his brows, the tired set of his eyes. He thought he must be looking much the same way, though, perhaps, he might have had it the easier of the two of them.
“Are you okay?” Jay managed, finally.
Louis took a moment to consider, then just sort of shrugged. “I will be,” he said.
All Jay could do was take him at his word. He held out his arms, a silent offering, and Louis shifted forward into them, pressing the hard curve of his masked face into Jay’s shoulder, his own arms coming up to wrap hard around Jay.
They held each other in silence for a long few moments, squeezing with what little strength their trembling arms could muster, slowly relaxing. Jay’s racing heart was steadying down to a normal pace, and he felt a huge sense of relief wash over him.
It was over. They’d done it.
Someone cleared their voice from the doorway of the cottage and they both jumped, peeling apart from each other. Yidhra grinned at them sharply. “Don’t mind me,” she said.
“I rather do,” Louis said.
Jay, his heart now pounding fast again, waggled a hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We were just. It’s been a lot.”
“I bet it has,” she said. “Jay, your aunt is ready to see you now.”
Oh. Jay took a deep breath and turned to Louis. “Do you want to come see my aunt again?”
“Just Jay,” Yidhra clarified. “Sorry. Maybe you can see her if you dream together again, but right now, she asked to see Jay, and I’m not really going to mess around with that.”
Louis shook his head. His shoulders relaxed, and he seemed to smile. “It’s fine, Jay,” he said. “I want to wake up anyway. Take a shower. Clean these injuries. Feed your cat.”
The cat did need feeding. “Are you sure?” Jay stressed. “I can go home with you now, if you want, and see her later—”
“It’s fine. I need a few moments to myself anyway,” Louis said. “Please.”
That was more than fair, really. Still a little reluctant, Jay nodded again, and turned to Yidhra. “…Can you make sure he gets home safely?” he asked, tentative. “We went through all this together, and…”
“I don’t have to,” Yidhra said. “Just make sure he takes the key that your aunt gave you and puts it in the door to the cottage. He’ll return to your house that way. Don’t worry about getting home yourself; you’re a dreamer. You’ll wake up there, when you choose to leave.”
“Even though I came here physically?”
“Even though. You haven’t moved here to stay, so your way back is open,” Yidhra said. “Go on, say your goodbyes. You’ll see each other shortly anyway.”
Jay nodded, turning from Yidhra to Louis and taking his hands. “Hey,” Jay said. “You did great back there. It was hard, I know. But you really… did great.”
“Did I…?” Louis asked blankly. “I’m not… sure what you mean. But I’m glad that we got done what we needed to, and I’m glad that you asked me to come.”
Swallowing, Jay nodded again and squeezed Louis’s hands. “I’ll see you soon,” he promised.
Louis pulled his hands out of Jay’s, but only to tip the mask up to expose his mouth, then took Jay by the shoulders and kissed him firmly. It was slow, hard, but kind. A promise, Jay thought, and he kissed Louis back the same way.
When they separated, Jay took a moment to catch his breath, then dug his key out of his pocket and handed it to Louis. As he did so, he realized that all four signs were back in his pockets again—including the ankh, which he’d last remembered holding up, and the Yellow Sign, which he thought he’d thrown away.
Well, that was a problem for future Jay, he decided, if it was a problem at all.
Louis took the key and left by the door, vanishing as he crossed the threshold, not looking back. Jay stared after him for a few moments, then turned to Yidhra, who had grown tired of waiting patiently and was reading a book.
“I’m ready,” he said.
Yidhra snapped the book closed and smiled at him. “Let’s go, then,” she said.
She didn’t reach out to touch him, didn’t take his hand, but suddenly he was somewhere else and she was gone. He supposed that she’d decided not to come with him, and for a moment, he thought about calling out after her, saying she couldn’t run forever, saying that Grace was here waiting for her too.
But honestly, that was none of his business, and she was still a Great Old One.
The place he’d found himself in was on a field, a large stretch of gently rolling countryside, dotted with the occasional tree or sheep. It seemed to go on forever. He was sure it didn’t—the Dreamlands were connected in what was, to them, a physical reality, so it must be situated somewhere on one of the continents—but it at least gave the illusion of a pleasant isolation. He was on the path to the front door of a two-story house, its chimney trailing a homey-looking smoke. The outside of the house was painted white, and flowered vines climbed its sides.
The blue sky above the house was beautiful, clear and sunny, with no sign of any horrific creatures clawing at it to try to get in. That was over, and there was no longer any reason to fear it.
Still, he was a little nervous as he headed to the front door. Not of monsters, not of horrors, not of elder gods. Just, yikes, he was going to see his supposedly dead aunt, who he had mourned, and what would he say to her?
It opened nearly at once, as if Grace had been waiting by the bay window, watching him—and maybe she had been. She looked no older than forty, younger than he’d ever seen her, with long brown hair bound back in a ponytail and bright, merry eyes with faint lines around them. He recognized her at once.
“Jay,” she said.
“Aunt Grace,” he said, and flung himself into her arms, squeezing her. “I missed you!”
“Oh, baby, baby,” she almost sobbed, hugging him back. “I missed you too. I’m sorry I left you such a mess.”
He thought about what it had been like to hold the flute, and shook his head against her shoulder. She still smelled like he remembered, though softer now, with fewer medications to sour the floral perfume she favored. “I understand,” he said. “I get it. I do.”
“I bet,” she said. She stepped back, looked him over, and tsked her tongue, smiling. “You’re so skinny. Come in, I’ll get the kettle on and we can have tea and cookies. You must have a lot to ask me.”
He followed her inside, into a living room with a couch and a big plush armchair, both with floral covers. It was well-lit in here, lovely hardwood floors gleaming, little knick knacks and decorations everywhere, but everything was in its place. “I do,” he said. “I really do.”
“And I’ve got so much to ask you too,” she said softly, gesturing at him to sit as she headed past him into the kitchen. “Do you like the house? Do you like Kingsport? It’s all right if you don’t. I won’t be offended if you want to sell the house and get out of there, go back to a normal life. I really won’t.”
[What do you want to ask Aunt Grace? What do you want to tell Aunt Grace?
What do you want to do when you wake up? Anything else you want Jay to act on?
This is the last day to participate in. Please comment by 4 pm PST Nov 1.
The story’s conclusion will go up on Nov 1 at the usual time.]