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A Blinking Light Up On The Clouded Mountain

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New Amsterdam.

There's a young woman sitting alone at a bar in the busy heart of the city. She has dark, delicate skin, and hair that verges on perfect: tight coils that fall halfway down her back, with a red streak dyed in on one side. A colorful bird daemon perches on the shoulder of her thrift-store-chic blouse.

Carlos spots them before they realizes he's arrived, and squeezes between crowded tables to get to them. "Azalea! Over here!"

His baby sister — who just turned twenty-nine, a fact that Carlos still has trouble processing sometimes — catches sight of him and waves. "You made it! I was freaking out when the blogs had photos of you at the airport — the press didn't follow you here, did they?"

"No, I'm pretty sure I lost them," says Carlos, pulling her into a hug. He's still adjusting to how newsworthy he is back in the US. The physics conference he's in town for is apparently ordering extra security, because it's going to have protestors. The mind boggles. "How are you doing? How's your big gallery show going? Let me buy you a drink."

Azalea says a few things about painting as the bartender mixes their drinks. On the floor by their feet, her tocororo daemon swoops down to land on Isaña's shell.

"But enough about me! How are you doing these days?"

"Can't complain," Carlos assures her. "I've got two pretty major papers to present this weekend, one examining the properties of electrum as an optical Rusakov conductor on Friday, and one proposing a new model for anbaromagnetic field theory on —"

"Oh my god, Carlos, you giant empollón," groans Azalea, dropping into Spanish. "I'm not asking about your job. Tell me about this boyfriend of yours."

Carlos blushes, but isn't complaining. His phone is even stocked with a carefully-curated folder of "Cecil photos that won't freak the family out" for just this purpose — that is, photos where Cecil's daemon is visible, his fashion choices aren't too outrageous, and there's a minimal level of bizarre Night Vale phenomena going on in the background.

His sister listens to various Cecil anecdotes with growing approval. She pronounces Cecil "cute," and declares the fact that Carlos is growing out his hair because Cecil likes it that way "totally sweet." Toward the end of the folder, she says, "Hope he doesn't get jealous easily, because there's at least one person here who's seriously giving you the eye."

Carlos doesn't have to look. "Dark hair, red shirt, lemur daemon?"

Azalea looks startled. "Yeah. How did you...?"

"She's been tailing me since I left the hotel." And pretty subtly, too. Carlos knows a few members of the Sheriff's secret police who could stand to take lessons from her.

"What? But you said the press didn't...."

"She isn't press, she's Magisterium." When Azalea's face goes a little grey, Carlos adds, "Don't worry, I don't think she's going to try anything in public! And I'm watching my drink and everything, just in case, and...uh, does it bother you?"

"Yes, it bothers me!" hisses Azalea. "Does the Church always have people following you around?"

"Not in Night Vale," Carlos assures her. He decides not to explain that this is only because Magisterium agents who enter Night Vale are re-educated out of knowing that he exists. It wasn't his idea, but he's been uncomfortably complicit. "Give me a second."

He steps off the bar stool, Isaña following at his heels. The agent pretends not to notice them at first, then lets her eyes flick up to Carlos's face. Her lipstick as she smiles is very red. "Well, hello there."

"Hi," says Carlos. "World Consistorial Court?"

The agent blinks. "Excuse me?"

"Just trying to guess what branch of the Magisterium you're with."

She recovers quickly. "Conspiracy theorist, are you? Sure, I'm with the World Consistorial Court. Are you with the Illuminati?"

Carlos has, in fact, received invitations to become an adjunct member of both the Alpha Illuminati and the Eagle Illuminati. He's holding out for an invite from the Hungry Man Brand Frozen Foods Officially Sponsored Illuminati. "Listen, it was a valid hypothesis. The World Consistorial Court have already kidnapped me at gunpoint once, so they were the logical place to start."

The agent starts. "And you got away?"

Carlos raises his eyebrows.

After a meaningful pause, the agent relaxes into another slow smile. "All right, you caught me. But I assure you, Dr. Ramirez, my organization would never approve such unfriendly treatment. We don't have to be enemies, you and I."

She bends slightly toward him, all her body language friendly, the fabric of her blouse shifting with the movement to bare an extra inch or so of cleavage. Carlos takes a moment to process what she's doing, then says, "Okay, no offense, but if part of the reason your organization sent you after me was potential seduction factor, they're really barking up the wrong tree."

The woman's smile turns absolutely poisonous. "Is that so? Then the 'confirmed bachelor' rumors we've all been hearing are true?"

So she wasn't even close enough to eavesdrop on Carlos's and Azalea's conversation? Carlos reverses his earlier judgment. The secret police would never be this sloppy. "On the contrary. I'm in a happy, serious relationship, and intend to stay that way. And now, I'm going to go find a nice place to have dinner with my little sister, and if you follow us there, I'll call the police. Do we understand each other?"

He's feeling pretty good when he rejoins Azalea, who now just looks impressed. They finish their drinks and head out together, her little bird daemon once again riding on Isaña's shell.

"I can't believe you threatened to sic the cops on her," says Azalea as they head down the street. "And with a straight face! Are they just not racist at all in Hispania Nova, or what?"

"Um," says Carlos. It's true, it hadn't occurred to him that the police might doubt his word, even in complaining about a woman who is way paler than he is. But only because he forgot that they wouldn't already have a recording of the whole conversation. "Yeah, that's it. Very non-racist, very fair-minded...bunch of all-around great people, those Night Vale police."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Speaking of police: when Carlos gets back to the hotel, there are a couple of squad cars parked outside.

He spends the whole elevator ride hoping they're here about someone else. No such luck. There's a crowd around rooms 212 and 214 — he and Keith Köhler, the two Night Vale experimental theologians in attendance, are in connected singles — and Köhler himself is standing against the far wall, along with his binturong daemon Rozarilde, both of them looking profoundly harried.

"Dr. Ramirez," says Köhler, nodding to greet them. "There has been a break-in. Your room appears to be undisturbed. Mine...does not."

"You're the other theologian here?" asks a man with a scarab beetle daemon on his shoulder, and an NAPD detective's badge pinned to his shirt. "Please stay out here while the forensics team finishes. Then we're going to ask you to go through your possessions, identify anything that's missing."

"Thanks," says Carlos automatically, trying to remember what he brought. Clothes, mostly. His tablet — which has his presentations, but he has backups in his email, and his Friday talk has a co-presenter who should have a copy too. A few small personal items. The bag of marbles the Faceless Old Woman who Lives In His Home stuck in his suitcase at the last minute, for her own inscrutable reasons. Under his breath, he says, "What did they get of yours?"

Köhler looks grim. "My ordinater is missing."

Isaña scurries around his heels to directly address Rozarilde. Low to the ground, the daemons can whisper with even less chance of being overheard. "You did the anti-theft chant, right?"

"I believed we did it correctly," murmurs the binturong. "You must demonstrate it again."

Carlos is in the middle of giving the detective a description of his Magisterium tail when there's a scuffling and a yell from Köhler's room. "There's some kind of animal under here!" yells a forensics tech from next to the bed.

Both Carlos and Köhler straighten up, suddenly hopeful. "Allow me to speak with it," says Köhler, making his way in.

"You're not allowed to keep pets in the rooms!" protests a woman with a finch daemon, in the uniform of hotel security. "This is a serious policy violation...."

"We didn't bring any pets," says Carlos. "I wish we had! A good spiderwolf probably would've kept our stuff safer than your security did."

Meanwhile, Köhler's binturong slinks up to the bed and chitters in a soothing way at whatever is hiding underneath it. "Come here. Is that you? Come on out now. Everything is safe, but the police must take a look at you."

Slowly, hesitantly, his laptop crawls out into the open. Its lid is half-shut, and there are bloodstains where it apparently bit someone, but it's still here. Not in Magisterium hands, or anybody else's.

"The hell is this?" mutters one of the officers. "Some kind of robot?"

Neither Carlos nor Köhler wants to explain that sometimes in Night Vale your gadgets and appliances will develop sentience. "Yes,"says Köhler shortly. "Now, as you collect your evidence, be gentle, or you will startle it."

 

-{,(((,">

 

They get a complimentary re-booking, with the new rooms entered into the hotel's computer system under false names, and a promise of 24/7 security on their floor. It's enough reassurance that Carlos should be able to sleep tonight.

He re-sets his bloodstone circle and does the anti-theft chant afresh. For good measure, he also draws a couple of protective runes on hotel stationary (using that exotic luxury, the ballpoint pen). It's basically the Modified Sumerian equivalent of a Keep Out sign. One copy for himself, one for Köhler; Carlos pricks his finger and demonstrates where to leave a spot of blood for an extra-strong seal.

Before he can leave to jump in the shower, Köhler says, "If you have plans for Saturday at two o'clock, you must cancel or postpone them."

"Uh, sure. Let me check the schedule." Carlos retrieves and flips through the conference information packet. "Yeah, there's nothing on Saturday right after lunch except the big invite-only alethiometry consult, so I'm free. Why?"

"Surely you can guess?"

Carlos gapes at him. "Am I invited to the big invite-only alethiometry consult?"

These only happen two or three times a year. Experts from across the globe meet to discuss questions about nothing less than the fate of the world, and try to parse out the answers their alethiometers have given. If it happens at a conference close enough to Oxford or Heidelberg, one of the alethiometrists might actually bring the device along and do some readings in person. Of course Köhler, as a senior Rusakov researcher at Heidelberg, is entitled to an invitation. But Carlos? It wouldn't even have occurred to him to ask.

"You haven't told them anything about Cecil, have you?" he adds, suddenly worried. It's not that he specifically mistrusts any of these people, but if word gets out that there's an off-the-record alethiometer sitting around unguarded, in the possession of a man with a gift for reading it? Second-rate spies and failed break-ins will be the least of what gets sent Cecil's way.

"I have been entirely discreet," says Köhler. "As I am sure you will be discreet about certain details of past prophecies, which I have not been authorized to discuss with you."

"Won't say a word," promises Carlos. "The only things I know about Lyra Silvertongue are what I've heard from angels. And/or seen on TV."

 

-{,(((,">

 

There are supposed to be two other former members of the Night Vale team at the 2013 International Conference on Applied Rusakov Physics. Carlos keeps an eye out for them during the morning coffee meet-and-greet.

Other people, in turn, are keeping an eye out for him: he gets stopped by a dozen grad students and postdocs, some of them trying to network with anyone they can see, but most of them recognizing his name. At least one doesn't know him at first, then suddenly identifies him as "the guy on the posters outside."

(There are protestors camped outside the conference center. Maybe two dozen of them. They have signs. Carlos is really glad they aren't allowed in.)

A portal physicist with an osprey daemon tries to grill him on why her application to the Night Vale research outpost wasn't accepted. Carlos doesn't know offhand, but he assures her that she can try again in six months or a year, because they're expecting to have more spots open by then.

A man with a strong Texan accent, his daemon a tiny bright-blue frog riding in his pocket, asks with sudden discomfort if Carlos is planning on firing people halfway through their postings. Sheepish, Carlos explains that no, they're just expecting a certain level of serious injury, possibly death, because no matter how competent their latest new hires are....

And that's when he realizes he's talking to one of the new hires. Rayshawn, their new Rusakov archaeologist. Well, this is awkward.

To his relief, Rayshawn isn't too put off. He was on a dig with Emily earlier this year; he's seen her scars, heard a few of her war stories. He also lets Carlos know that Emily isn't going to be here at the conference after all.

"Why not? Is she okay?" asks Carlos, imagining all kinds of horrors: threats from the Magisterium, trouble with the government, meeting with a rogue un-hooded spectre, stumbling across another portal with confused and aggressive otherworldly creatures.

"You ain't heard?" says Rayshawn. "She's pregnant, man."

Oh. "Oh! Good for her."

Which means the only person left that Carlos specifically wants to track down is Gerald, who he'll see tomorrow at their presentation anyway. He excuses himself from the conversation, gets a refill of coffee, and goes looking for a quiet corner to review his notes.

 

-{,(((,">

 

The conference room is packed.

Carlos thinks he sees another of the team's new hires in the front row: Nirliq, their new photography-and-optics expert, replacing the departed Fleur Dirac and Brad Hall. He's looking forward to showing her the real electrum spyglass, the one whose properties are currently not public outside of Night Vale.

He lays out a few of the lenses he's going to be demonstrating today on the table in front of him: lenses made not with Whispering Forest resin, just ordinary non-sentient electrum. They don't show you the glorious spectacle of Rusakov particles in realtime, but they still have all kinds of possible applications.

The audience finishes filing in; the tech people complete their setup. Carlos opens his presentation, taps the mic, and smiles out at the crowd.

"I'd like to thank you all for being here today," he begins. "With a special hello to our official observers there in the back. Just doing your jobs, I'm sure."

A handful of people in dark suits and clerical collars try not to squirm at the attention. Officially, the Church is a neutral observer at theological talks like this. And Carlos has gotten over being scared of their unofficial intimidation.

"I'm sure most of you are here to learn about the properties of Dirac-Hall lenses, and I will get to them in just a moment," he says. "But first...I also have a feeling many of you are hoping to hear me say something dramatic about angels. Is that right?"

Nervous laughter ripples around the room.

"Well, I'm afraid everything I had to say has already been said. So instead, before I left town, I asked a couple of angels if they wanted to say a few words instead. They were kind enough to make a short video, which I'm going to play for you now."

He opens the video file.

With a snap, the power in the building goes out.

The big screens are dead, the mics are dead, and the room is plunged into darkness except for the constellation of LEDs from a hundred mobile devices. Carlos's laptop, now running on battery, is suddenly blinding. He pauses the video, not at all surprised by the timing, and speaks as loudly as he can: "Sorry about that! Give it a second, I'm sure they'll have it back on soon."

Under the table at his feet, the barn-swallow-shaped being perched on Isaña's shell whispers, "Would it help if you had a bright black light? I can definitely fill the room with a bright black light."

"Thank you, but no," murmurs Isaña. "Can you mimic an anbaric current well enough to get things running again? Just in this room? Once the video is out there in spite of their best efforts, I'm sure the power will conveniently come back on."

Personally, Carlos thinks the Church is overreacting. Sure, one of the Erikas in the video mentions the fact that there is no God and religion is a lie, but most of them are preoccupied trying to predict the finale of (this world's version of) Breaking Bad.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Gerald finds Carlos during dinner, at the bar in the hotel connected to the conference center. He's in good shape: he has a cane now, but doesn't appear to be using it. "For emergencies only," he declares, as he and Carlos make their way to a booth with accommodations for his bulky musk-ox daemon. "Why, I feel fit as a forty-year-old. How about you? How's celebrity treating you?"

Carlos groans. "Don't even ask. I tried to go out somewhere for dinner, and five press people were on me the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk. Let's just talk shop, okay?"

"Fair enough. Have you been to the product exhibit hall yet?"

They get into a vigorous discussion of the merits of a new line of vacuum gauges. Carlos daydreams out loud about some of the experiments he could do with one company's comprehensive materials testing system. Gerald relays the industry reviews of a the superconducting research magnets he's had his eye on.

"Even spotted a few products with the Strexcorp logo at another vendor's booth," he says. "I suppose they don't have their own distribution infrastructure in the US yet. Something of a relief to see them, let me tell you."

"Why's that?"

"Well, a few months back I had a thought I might call them up. See if the branch that came up with those handheld Rusakov meters had any positions open. A nice safe R&D job would be easier than being out in the field, especially if the field is in our favorite little town, and I have the experience. Even if they haven't branched out of Hispania Nova yet, my Spanish is up to the job."

"So what happened?"

"It was the darnedest thing. I couldn't find them."

Carlos frowns. "What do you mean?"

"Couldn't find them. Not a trace. No website, no stock market position, no mention of them in industry or trade journals, and nobody I talked to had ever heard of them. I was starting to wonder if they were like that house of ours. Seems like they exist, and it would make sense for them to exist, but...."

"Of course they exist. Our Rusakov meters came from somewhere." Although, now that Carlos thinks about it, he's never spoken to anyone from Strexcorp directly. All his dealings with them have been through Carlo Raimondi, head of the Desert Bluffs control team. Back when they had a Desert Bluffs control team, instead of two dead bodies and three empty shells left behind by a terrible...something, because they got too close to the secret workings of...someone.

He doesn't like to think about it. Looking up the most general information about it scared Cecil halfway to tears. And it shouldn't affect the rest of them, as long as they stay out of Desert Bluffs.

 

-{,(((,">

 

At first glance, the exclusive international alethiometry consult doesn't look like much. Sure, you have to show ID to get in, but behind the guards is an ordinary conference room, with seats for maybe twenty people around a U-shaped table. Everyone gets a complimentary water bottle, a notepad of conference-center stationary, and a pen. Carlos shivers more at the pens than the people.

The room is maybe half full when he gets there. Nobody looks up; they're all busy talking with each other, or making preliminary notes. With the exception of one young woman, everyone looks at least as old as Carlos's parents. Köhler is talking with two people, one of whom is old enough to be his grandfather.

It takes Carlos a couple of seconds to recognize the man. He's the last living direct student of Lyra Belacqua.

And that woman is the head alethiometrist at Oxford. And that man, he basically invented the most modern method of Rusakov detection (or the second-most modern, depending on what Strexcorp's technology uses). And there isn't a single Magisterium observer to be found.

This is so cool.

Carlos finds the seat with his nameplate, between the one for Keith Köhler and the one for Paivi Feldt. He quietly relocates his pen to Paivi's place while he waits for the rest of the attendants to trickle in.

Eventually Paivi — who turns out to be the young woman — takes the seat. She's a blonde in a slimming black suit, on whose shoulder is perched a handsome Lapland longspur, a white-and-brown bird with a bright yellow beak and patches of black and chestnut on his head. "Carlos Ramirez, right?" she says, shaking his hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."

"Nice to meet you too," says Carlos. Now that he can put a name to the face, he realizes that she looks a lot like the the Dr. Feldt from Harvard, the program director who championed the Night Vale research post when it was in danger of being lost to controversy. "Are you by any chance Lars Feldt's —"

Her eyes sparkle with half-hidden amusement, and Carlos abruptly rethinks everything. Nordic woman. Bird daemon. Young-looking at first glance, but with a sense of calm and nobility you don't usually get in people under thirty.

"— mother?"

"Actually, I —" Paivi Feldt stutters in turn, while other people look at Carlos in surprise. "— I...am, yes."

"If I could have everyone's attention, please," says the head Oxford alethiometrist, cutting Carlos off before he can ask what clan the witch is from, or how much their interests have been guiding his career since the moment he submitted the Night Vale research proposal. "As most of you know, last year we had several readings that were cause for unusual concern...."

The lights are dimmed, and high-res video of the Heidelberg alethiometer is projected onto a screen, the needle spinning through symbols to provide the answers. It goes through four old questions, ones where the possible meanings have already been remotely picked-apart by this group for months; and then a fifth, this one new, to be discussed in person. Most of the viewers, even Köhler, spend the whole thing frantically scribbling notes.

It isn't like the calm, sure poetry of Cecil reporting what an answer means. These experts have to ask questions, to call for slow-motion playback of one symbol or another, to go back and cross-reference, to look things up in the Books of Reading and argue over whose interpretation is right. It's fascinating. Even if it is...slow.

And the content is worrying. Someone uses the phrase "the unraveling of all things." That can't be good.

Carlos is seriously considering texting Cecil, asking him to do the same reading and slip Carlos the answer, when one expert says "the young woman," and another says "which one?" — and Carlos realizes they're in familiar territory. He's heard this one before.

The world's foremost experts in alethiometry start arguing. When it comes to averting what might be a multi-world apocalypse, most of them think the key players include a single young woman, while a few are adamant that there are two.

Carlos raises his hand. "It's two."

"Thank you for your guess, Dr. Ramirez," says the chairwoman. "Dr. Schafer, what do you —"

"It wasn't a guess!" exclaims Carlos. The Oxford alethiometrist looks understandably miffed at being interrupted. "Sorry, but there are definitely two. A killer and a walker. Not that there can't be overlap! The girl who walks might have to do some killing at some point, and the girl who kills is probably going to walk places once in a while, but that doesn't make them the same person."

"Doctor, you are not here because of your expertise with symbol reading," says Dr. Belacqua's last living student. "You are here to listen."

Carlos's ears burn with embarrassment. Under the table, Isaña rolls up into an almost-closed ball.

"His interpretation is reasonable," says Köhler from beside them. "The idea of a young woman is consistently associated with the Anchor and the Horse at certain times, the Sword and the Owl at others. These are generally unconnected."

This, people listen to. The debate starts up again, more evenly this time. Carlos tries not to sink down in his seat and pretend he isn't there. He appreciates Köhler's help — the man had been surprisingly quiet before jumping in on Carlos's behalf, so it's not clear whether he already agreed or whether he just trusts Carlos's information to be accurate — but, wow, he'd forgotten how much he hates needing a white friend for backup in the first place.

"This confusion is not academic," says Paivi Feldt sharply. "It is imperative that the witches find this girl. One of these girls. And soon."

"It might help if we had some idea why you want to find her," says the chairwoman, eyeing the witch sardonically over the rims of her glasses.

"You are well aware that I am not authorized to tell you that."

"Witches and their secrets," mutters one of the experts from Heidelberg, a sour-faced man who doesn't sound happy about it.

"As if you can talk! How many secrets are you holding that the general public would love to know? That Dr. Ramirez in particular would love to know? Share a few pieces of your own forbidden theologian-lore with him, go on. I'll wait."

"I really don't need..." begins Carlos, not thrilled about getting to be a chew-toy in this fight.

"All right," interrupts the chairwoman. "Dr. Ramirez, we have in safekeeping at Jordan College a set of records about Dr. Belacqua's childhood travels, as related personally to her students, not shared with the public. The vague yet menacing branch of the Magisterium with which she clashed did not have all its records destroyed, though we allow the present-day Church to believe so. We also know that that clash had nothing to do with why they went on to pursue her across the worlds. They chased her because of her broader destiny — something she did for every universe, everywhere — the reason her truest name was not Silvertongue, but Eve."

The announcement hits Paivi Feldt a lot harder than it hits Carlos. For him, it's just one more thing he already knows. For her, it makes her suck in a hissing breath, stand up so fast it knocks her chair to the ground, and stalk out of the room in a cloud of barely-repressed fury.

And Carlos needed to talk to her, too.

"Will you excuse me?" he says, as politely as he can, pushing back his own chair. "I appreciate everything, and I will try to make it back as soon as possible, but I need to catch up with her."

The sour-faced expert from Heidelberg is positively sneering. "You aren't even listening. The implications of what you just heard, and you —"

"She was Eve. All the worlds were in danger of losing Dust forever, until she brought it back. She also fixed death, and is basically the coolest person who ever lived, possibly tied with Will Parry, and I really do need to go, so if there's anything else, please tell Dr. Köhler and he will pass it on, okay? Thanks!"

 

-{,(((,">

 

He and Isaña catch up with the witch on an empty second-floor terrace. If she left a branch of cloud-pine out here, she could hop on it and be out of his reach for good...but either she doesn't have one, or she allows him to approach.

Her daemon doesn't stick around. He spreads his wings and leaps into the air, soaring off into the maze of New Amsterdam skyscrapers until he's out of sight.

"I'm sorry about...whatever happened in there," says Carlos. He's gotten pretty good at making peace even when he has no idea what's going on. "I don't want to bother you, but there's something I need to ask you, and it might be important."

"My mother was tortured," says Paivi Feldt.

Carlos stumbles to a stop a few feet behind her. He's not sure what brought that up, but it's awful, whatever the details. "I'm sorry."

"Tortured. During the War. And then killed. For exactly the same information that woman just...handed you." She turns to face them, dark-eyed, white-faced with anger. "And she knew that."

"That's terrible," says Carlos softly.

Paivi Feldt's chin trembles as she fights for control. Carlos holds still and quiet until she claws enough of it back to say, "You wanted something."

Carlos nods. "It's about this girl you're looking for. Witch-lore. There are things you can't go around telling people. I understand that. Just tell me this...there's a stretch of land in the North that's dead. Daemons can't enter it. Is this related?"

She stares. (Carlos has the uncomfortable feeling he's being taken apart with something more than just vision.) At last she says, "And if it is?"

"Then I should tell you that I know about a similar place," says Carlos. "Along with a young woman who happens to be going through it. And I know...don't ask me how, I've got secrets too...that she has a destiny, which involves a lot of walking, and which I am almost positive is the same one they were talking about back in there. So if the witches are looking for her because that experience is something she needs, you can relax, because she already has it."

After a few deep breaths, Paivi Feldt says, "Thank you. On more than one count, because now I don't have to go back in there."

"Hey, anything for the fate of the world," says Carlos, offering her a self-conscious smile. "I probably should, though. They're my colleagues, after all."

"There's probably nothing they can tell you that you can't find out on your own," points out the witch. "Or with the aid of some of your friends."

"Um," says Carlos. How much do the witches know about Cecil and his alethiometer? Carlos doesn't know which clan Cecil's long-lost mother was from; is she an ally of Paivi Feldt's? There's no telling how much she knows, how much she could reveal if she started talking....

"I've seen the birds lurking around you since yesterday. Those aren't witches' daemons, are they?"

Oh, right. Carlos rubs the back of his neck. "Erika does like to be helpful."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The afternoon presentation with Gerald goes off without a hitch. After the crowd of questioners has drifted off to the next round of presentations, Köhler finds them, face blank. Gerald's musk-ox daemon puts herself between them and the general public, forcing people to give them a wide berth.

"Hi," says Carlos. "The alethiometrists weren't too mad, were they?"

"I believe they were disappointed," says Köhler. "They are...more informed about your role in prophecy than I was previously aware, and it seems they wished to reveal this to you in person. Instead, they were left to send through me the dramatic revelation that you would, one day, return from the world of the dead."

He says it with such a straight face that it takes a second before Carlos has to clap both hands over his mouth to hold in a guffaw.

"Oh my," says Gerald. "Did you really? Why, I had no idea things would get so exciting after I left."

"It wasn't a big deal," giggles Carlos. "It really wasn't — other people yanked me back — I just got lucky enough to have them."

"You will of course be discreet about this," adds Köhler. "Dr. Ramirez does not need to be accused of having Messianic delusions."

"Don't you worry," Gerald assures them. "I know he's not angling for worship. I'm sure he'll settle for getting everyone to call him Carlos Silvertongue, won't you, Carlos?"

Not everyone! thinks Carlos happily. Just Cecil.

He doesn't repeat that out loud. There are some colleagues you can make oral sex jokes around, but Köhler is really not one of them. Instead, as the giggles subside, he says, "Thanks. To both of you. I'll see you tomorrow, okay? It's getting late in Hispania Nova, and there's somebody I promised to call."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

It is always dark in the dog park.

Cold, too. Dana sits back against the humming stone monolith, which at least has the effect of warming her up, and tries once again to project her spirit somewhere brighter. Her home, perhaps. Or the radio station. Is she still an intern, after all this time away? It is hard to tell.

She thinks she may even be getting somewhere when a familiar voice interrupts her concentration: "Dana."

"Hello again!" Dana covers her eyes. "Don't give me any hints. I can do this. You have long dark hair...tan skin...a compact build...a strong nose...eyes that are sad. So very sad. You are translucent, because you are visiting by astral projection, not in physical form. And, of course, you are wearing the same tan jacket as always."

"Right on all counts," says her visitor. "You are tremendous, you know that? Absolutely tremendous."

Pleased, Dana stands to greet him. "I couldn't have done it without your help." She hugs herself, shivering. "Speaking of help. Do you know any spells for warmth? Or, perhaps, could you ask the Scouts to send me some winter clothing in their next care package?"

The man in the tan jacket frowns. "Are you cold? Is this new?"

"It was always cold. But it is getting colder recently, I think."

The man looks...concerned. No, not concerned. Afraid.

"Could I be feeling hooded spectres?" Dana looks at the barren ground around her. Of course she still can't see them, but she knows the dog park is full of them: lurking and waiting, looking for prey. "Are there some around me right now?"

"There have always been hooded spectres around you," says the man, giving Dana fresh chills. "Sometimes so many that it's hard to see you through the crowd. They sense that you're close to settling. And if you're beginning to sense them too...Dana, I think you should go."

"What? Go where?"

"Out. I don't know how. But I know you can find a way."

"Did your foresight tell you that?" asks Dana, curious. She's learned a lot of useful things from this man, but foresight is one she doesn't seem able to pick up.

"No." He has the grace to look sheepish. "In fact, you told me that. When you appeared across the room from me, not half an hour ago."

So Dana will get the hang of astral projection eventually! The idea that she will become unstuck in time is less of a surprise; she had guessed it from some of the man's vague statements already, and besides, time is an illusion anyway. "Did I give myself any hints? Suggestions on where to begin?"

"Unfortunately, no. Which means you must have remembered figuring it out on your own."

Maybe she can...but Dana really would have appreciated a helpful paradox right about now.

"I'll go find the Scouts. Or Josie," continues the man. "See if they can get one last round of supplies to you before you're gone. But don't wait for me, all right? If you find an exit before I find you again...take it."

"I will." Dana picks up her backpack — one of the first non-food items catapulted over the Dog Park's high obsidian walls to land at her feet — stocked with such necessities as water, protein bars, beef jerky, gloves, rope, a pocketknife, and a tiny bag of thumb-sized bloodstones. "Thank you for everything, Señor—"

"Please," interrupts the man. "I think we can be on a first-name basis by now, don't you?"

"All right." Dana smiles. "Thank you, Emmanuel."

"It was my pleasure, Dana."

He vanishes, leaving Dana alone once more, without even her daemon for company.

She decides to start by investigating the walls. Just because the obsidian is flat and smooth and doesn't have so much as a crack for as far as the eye can see is no reason to assume she can't get through them somehow, right?

Shrugging the backpack over her shoulders, Dana walks straight ahead from the monolith until she reaches the nearest patch of wall, rests her hand against the rock, and digs a deep X in the dirt with the heel of one of her hiking boots. Then she turns left, and begins taking steady, even strides, counting off the paces. Every twenty steps, she makes another notch in the soil.

She feels warmer already.