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Jay jerked his gaze back to Hannah from the door, almost distracted by the cold tension that had been between her and Louis. “Ah, that’s… by Mother, do you mean…?”
“I am a Child of Keziah,” Hannah said, with another sharp-toothed but, he thought, friendly smile. “So, you know. Mother.”
“Right, sorry if that was obtuse,” he said, smiling back. He decided to let go of whatever was going on between the two of them; the book had said that Keziah’s sign was invoked to oppose the other Elder Gods, so it made sense that Hannah would be a bit cool when major players in other cults showed up. Louis might have said some pretty reassuring things to Jay personally, but ultimately, this was really none of his business. “I haven’t received a lot of direct names of, uh, groups or anything.”
She laughed. “You can say cult; it’s totally true.” Her hands were working briskly, taking things out of the bin and sorting them into piles. “‘The Children of Keziah’, for me. If anyone else doesn’t give their association out, they’re just trying to be sketchy and mysterious. I mean, I get it, this whole thing sort of loans itself to sketchy mysteriousness.”
“It super does,” he said, groaning. He leaned back against the counter, watching her work, her muscles sliding under her skin with a strangely unnatural smoothness. Like, if she were animated, she was at the wrong frame rate or something; he wasn’t even sure how else to think of it. Just that time wasn’t moving right for her body’s motions. “Honestly I didn’t know any of this before I came.”
“Oof. Bad Grace. I get it, though. You don’t put this thing on paper, you don’t mention it casually to outsiders. That’s a good way to have… hmm. Collateral damage.”
He almost asked what she meant—but he could guess, really. Camden had worried about attracting the wrong sort of attention, and had said that names could do that. Louis had said that, just by Jay’s reading even part of a book he happened to find, he might end up finding the Yellow Sign—and Louis had even been supernaturally alerted to the fact Jay had found the book. And something about his arrival must have caused Ashesh to show up in the house next door—the more Jay thought about it, the less he found himself able to believe that even a cultist would summon the Crawling Chaos to housesit.
“Yeah, no wonder Aunt Grace hadn’t done more than describe her dreams,” he said, wincing. “Even that might have been risky, now that I know what I know.”
Hannah glanced up, quirking a brow at him. “Well, you’ve adjusted fast,” she said. “Maybe she at least helped pave the way so you wouldn’t lose your mind over all this.”
Jay didn’t want to know how literally she meant it. “I’m doing my best,” he said. “Honestly, it’s not great. Like a scratching in my head and chest whenever I think about it too hard.”
“Poor thing,” she said, with no real concern.
“…Speaking of dreams, though,” he said. “If she said I might talk to you, I presume she, uh, told you about our discussion?”
She’d emptied the bin and was moving onto the larger pieces now, shifting them around with purpose. “I mean, ‘told me’ isn’t quite accurate, but yes.”
“She said she couldn’t give me any information until I found a Sign.”
“Nobody takes information away from the Library of Celaeno without having found some kind of Sign,” she agreed. “If you learn something forbidden there and don’t have a Sign, the information will end up taken from your mind. It’s not pleasant.”
He nodded, trying not to think too hard about that, that scratching feeling threatening to come back. Like anxiety, he thought, but somehow more so. “What sort of commitment is it, to have a Sign?”
She hmmed softly. “That depends. Ultimately, having a Sign—which may or may not be a physical marker—is a sort of protection. Like a ward or a sigil. But it’s a protection because it says that someone has some amount of claim on you. Someone can have a Sign as simply as, you know, they looked it up in a book, and wrote it out on paper, and are showing it around. You’ll attract attention, though, every time you use it for any purpose. They can feel that, they can know it. Or, someone could have a Sign because they’ve… made mistakes, and aren’t long for this world. A curse mark, the evil eye—none of those are literal, but that sort of thing.”
“I think I get it,” he said, though he wished he didn’t. “So I could write down a sign and wave it around but it gives them some kind of… in? Or I could acquire one ritually, but then I’ve engaged in a ritual and that also has a power…?”
“Right. Using a sign absolutely gives them influence on you,” she said lightly. “Rituals also give influence on you. Using one without a ritual also means they didn’t know about it in advance. I wouldn’t say either is safer, just different.”
“Oh, sweetheart, I don’t specialize in reassuring.”
Jay blurted out, “Did you know the world is at threat of ending?”
She paused in the middle of sliding a vase over to sit next to one of her piles. “Yes, I know,” she said. “But I’m not strong enough a dreamer to do anything about it.”
“I don’t know why,” Jay said, urgently. “Please, you can’t want it to happen?”
“I don’t want it, no,” she said. “I mean, not exactly. There’s some appeal to the idea, I can’t deny it. You know, ‘The apocalypse? That might as well happen.’ Mm, but ending like that…”
“Like what?” Jay asked, leaning in.
She blinked, then smiled, brushing a hand against his cheek, talons lightly brushing the skin of his throat. “I don’t exactly know,” she said. “All I’ve had is nightmares. Mother hasn’t said more.”
He flushed, swallowing. “So I need to ask directly?”
“From someone who’d know? Probably.” She let her hand drop, straightening. “Like I said, I’m not a strong enough dreamer. That’s why I’m doing her business in this world.”
Jay nodded slowly. “What can a stronger dreamer do?”
“Oh, anything. Travel through the four continents of the Dreamlands with just their mind. Enter, despite the danger, with their body. Move into the cities that exist there. Become immortal. Create—” she sounded hungry for a moment. “They can create things. Items. Places… their own homes, their own palaces, their own cities. Maybe even new people. In dreams, you can find things you’ve long since lost, hope and inspiration, and recreate them for yourself. Of course, you can also die. Many things live in the Dreamlands.”
“But you can’t go…?” He knew he was asking something sensitive here, tried to pitch his voice gently.
Maybe she appreciated the empathy; her lips twitched, wry. “Most people can’t. Lots of children have the ability, but we lose it as we get older. But, even if she is the Dream Witch, Mother also is a mother of this world. There is plenty one can do for her here.” She took a deep breath, let it out, and visibly dropped the subject, smiling at him and pointing to one of her piles. “All right, this is junk. I won’t be able to sell it so I can’t take it. For the rest of it… What do you say to $125 for the lot, plus you give me a surprise the next time you bring a load of her things by?”
Hannah winked at him. “Look, there aren’t a lot of young, attractive, eligible men around here who I haven’t known my entire life, bring me a flower or a nice card or something, I don’t care, it’ll just perk my day up, versus sorting through other people’s trash all day, you know?”
He flushed harder, then laughed. “I can do that,” he agreed, feeling some tension in his chest loosen. “Okay. $125 and a surprise.”
She perked up at that, rising with a bounce. “Great! You get the rejects packed up and I’ll get the cash.”
He did, filling the bin up, then accepting the creased bills she handed him. “Thanks, Hannah,” he said. “I really appreciate… well, all of this.”
“See, that’s the spirit,” she said. “I’ll help you get this back to the car.”
“Oh, I couldn’t ask you—”
She hefted the bin like it weighed nothing, quirking a brow at him. “Sorry, what?”
“No, nothing. Wow,” he added, and she let out a trill of laughter as she carried it out.
Louis was already back from his walk—if he’d even gone on one—and kept his gaze focused on Jay as the two of them came back out. Hannah helped Jay load the bin back up, then gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t go crazy,” she advised, then headed back inside.
When she’d finally done so, Louis seemed to relax a little. “A good meeting?”
Jay shrugged, a little awkward. “I think so,” he said. “She seemed nice.”
“Mm, sure.” Louis glanced in the back of the car. “Were those the things she wouldn’t take?”
“Yeah, not antique enough. Or valuable enough.” Jay tapped Louis’s arm gently, getting his attention back, and gave him an encouraging smile. It seemed, again, to surprise him. “Still up for helping me take them to the thrift store?”
Louis nodded, letting Jay open the passenger door for him. “…Yes. And after that?”
“After?” Jay slid into the driver’s seat.
“Do you want me to come back to your house? To help you with… well. Whatever you wish,” Louis said. His voice was mild, speaking absently, but his eyes were keen, focused on Jay. “With the house, this situation, or …otherwise.”
Jay was suddenly very aware of how close Louis was, could nearly feel the heat of his body. “Ah—”
“Or perhaps you’d like to come back to my house. Certainly, I could entertain you in style. Treat you to a relaxing dinner. Spend some time together,” Louis said. “If you wish to get out of your own house for a while.”
Hesitating, Jay ran his hands over the steering wheel, looking at them instead of at Louis. On the one hand, he really wanted to check out where those keys went—it might be important to check out where those keys went. And he wasn’t sure he could do that with Louis there—or could he? Would it really be such a bad idea?
And for the rest of it… it was impossible to deny that it had an appeal. But would he be able to enter the Dreamlands at someone else’s house, after… well, he didn’t want to assume, despite the implications.
He wasn’t even sure what he wanted.
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