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A Blinking Light Up On The Clouded Mountain

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Kinlání.

There's a respectably-sized mob waiting outside the news studio when Carlos arrives, and for the first time, it isn't mostly followers of the Church out for his blood. Still a few of those in evidence, but for every handmade REPENT HERETIC sign with the numbers of a Bible verse scribbled in magic marker, there's a matching MARRY ME CARLOS adorned with glue-and-glitter hearts.

Good thing ACN has solid security. On top of which, Carlos brought his own. Delphine's arm is out of her sling; her cat daemon flashes claws at anyone who looks close to giving Isaña trouble.

He gets some audible gasps and flinching when the crowd spots the scar across his face. Carlos is glad he thought to post about it on Facebook last night, so his family won't be caught off-guard when his interview goes live. While scribbling an autograph on a photo for one woman, he raises his eyebrows at her staring companion and explains, "Desert Bluffs shaving accident."

The word is out by now that Desert Bluffs is a federal disaster area, and emergency management funds and resources are starting to stream in. Several teams of relief workers have even made it to town in person...though a few turned around and fled again once they noticed they were driving past road signs decorated with sun-dried intestines. In his interview, Carlos encourages people only to volunteer if they have strong stomachs.

He says a few words to commemorate the now-officially-reported deaths of the Desert Bluffs team. He answers the usual questions about angels. And he talks about repairing intercision.

Renée, known only to the public by the pseudonym Agent R, seemed healthy and well by almost all local tests. Her daemon's range is stunted — they start feeling pain at just eleven inches of distance — but as long as Tovi keeps to a small form that can ride on a shoulder or in a backpack, they're all right. She and her father (with Nirliq and Quentin in tow, for theology advice as necessary) are currently spending a few days at the world-famous intercision-care unit in Helsinki for further study. Carlos has every reason to be optimistic.

He praises his teammates for all the excellent work they've done together...and adds that no, they're not accepting applications for new researchers. Whatever you've heard about Night Vale, the truth is twice as weird, and Carlos's people do not currently have the resources to train you into surviving it. Maybe next semester.

 

-{,(((,">

 

When Delphine and Carlos get back to their sleepy little hotel (someone tries to tail them on the way; Carlos is pretty proud of how he shakes them off, though Delphine scoffs at the effort and calls them amateurs), Cecil and Janice are already hanging out in Carlos's room, playing cards.

"I see you two are having fun," says Delphine. "Oh my, are those new shirts?"

"Uh-huh!" exclaims Janice. She and Cecil pose to show off a pair of matching blouses with appliqué cacti along the hems. "Tío Cecil bought them. Look, we match!"

She is, it turns out, Cecil's actual, by-blood niece: the child of a sister Cecil never had, via timeline shenanigans nobody knew about until Dana stepped into them. It's hard to say whether Cecil or Janice is more excited about the revelation. Carlos had expected resistance from Delphine, but she's been surprisingly calm about the whole thing.

(Apparently she hadn't known a single detail about her not-properly-existent partner either. Not even that the person was a witch. When Carlos asked why Delphine was so paranoid about Janice's safety, then, she gave him a baffled look and said that if he knew half the things she'd observed on the job, he'd be paranoid about everything.)

"Later we got kicked out of a store for yelling at the owners about the scam they were running selling unmodified rocks as effective healing crystals," continues Cecil. "Then Janice had a vision, so I had to take her into the shade and talk her back into perceiving reality with some degree of accuracy, and then we found this lovely place that sold artisinal soaps!"

"A vision?" echoes Delphine. "Darling, are you all right? You've never needed help coming out of those before."

"Never saw the light of the Smiling God this much before," says Janice with a shrug. "Mamá, they make soap with cucumber here, can you believe it? This town is so weird."

(Not a single person in the room understands why Carlos starts laughing.)

 

-{,(((,">

 

Once Cecil and Janice have finished their game, Janice and Delphine return to their own room for the night. Cecil ends up gazing out the window into the night air. They're close enough to the mountain that it dominates the horizon: not the ominous Clouded Mountain, or even the majestic mirage that sometimes appears on the Night Vale horizon, just the modest little peak Carlos took Cecil to visit last February.

"You picked a place with a good view," says Cecil.

Carlos wraps both arms around his waist from behind, chin resting on his shoulder. "It's no tropical beach vacation, but I figured it would be nice."

Neither of them suggests plans for an actual tropical beach vacation. They haven't made concrete plans for much of anything more than about two weeks in the future. Someone stuck a coupon booklet from Juosukka Contractors in Cecil's mailbox, so they've started batting around the idea of getting a new home built from the ground up and finally moving in together...but they haven't brought the idea to Josie herself. Not yet.

"It's the most romantic thing anyone's ever done for me," says Cecil warmly. "So, how was your day? Aside from giving riveting interviews about your brilliance and heroism."

"Oh, not too interesting. Talked about a lot of experimental theology. Turned down three marriage proposals."

Cecil squawks in indignation.

Carlos gives him an extra cuddle, then tugs the curtains closed and nuzzles the back of his neck in unbridled adoration.

When he pulls away, the marker blacking out Cecil's tattoo is smeared. Whoops. Well, Carlos needed a shower anyway. "Hey, mind if I test-drive one of those artisinal soaps...?"

"Mmm. Only if you let me help."

They've hung a spare towel over the motel bathroom mirror. The place isn't fancy enough to have customized daemon-washing facilities, just a wide, flat-bottomed bathroom sink; Carlos fills it with an inch of soapy water for Isaña while Cecil unpacks his shopping. (Khoshekh is back in town, at the station.)

"You probably don't need the marker any more," he remarks when Cecil comes in, already half-undressed. "I know it's gonna take another treatment or two before the ink is really gone, but at this point it's only visible up close."

"And up close is where I like having you," says Cecil, moving to help Carlos with his T-shirt.

Sounds reasonable enough. Isaña hops into the water and rolls around in happiness as Carlos gets Cecil's hands running over his bare skin. "Hey, Kevin's still in Night Vale custody, isn't he? Do you know if he's gotten his removed?"

Cecil steps back, crossing his arms. "Cosmetic procedures like tattoo removal are not a luxury offered to miscreants and lawbreakers."

It's the pointed voice he normally uses for the benefit of the Sheriff's secret police. Even though he knows full well they're out of observation range, and Carlos is 95% sure...maybe 90%...at least 80% sure Delphine didn't bug their room just for kicks. He sighs. "What if someone else paid for it? If we put up the money...."

"'We'?"

"If I did," amends Carlos, starting to work on his cargo shorts himself. "I thought you might...but if not, forget it. I'd do it. Assuming he wanted it gone. I'd have to ask. And assuming there wasn't too much of a bribe attached...would it be gauche to ask Delphine about something like that? Should I save the question for the next time I see a false trash can...?"

"What you should do is leave it alone!" bursts out Cecil. "Why do you want anything to do with him? Aren't the nightmares bad enough as it is without seeing him in person?"

Carlos's brow furrows. "How did you know I have Kevin nightmares?"

"...Is that not why you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and feel my teeth?"

Oh.

"I suppose it could also be that you've gotten highly inaccurate information about how to check for throat spiders...."

"No, you're right. Sorry, didn't realize I was waking you up." Carlos holds the folded khaki in front of himself. "Look, Cecil...I think it might help me to see him. To see that he's not Strex's anymore. And if he wants his bar code gone, he deserves help with that. If you were the one in foreign custody —"

"Well, I'm not! And that man is not me. You don't owe him anything. Just because we happen to have the same face...you don't have any idea what he's really like under the Strexcorp brainwashing, you don't know if he's safe...I don't want you in the same room with him! I don't even want to think about him getting near you again."

He turns away, worrying a loose thread on his own artsily-patched jean shorts until it snaps.

He's not being rational. Carlos could try to talk him out of it. But they're both entitled to some irrational fears when Strex and its people are concerned...and Cecil has stepped lightly around Carlos's before. "What if I get someone else to give him the offer? I won't see him face-to-face. Would that be an okay compromise?"

"...yes."

"Okay. We'll do that."

Isaña pops her head up over the edge of the sink. "We know he's not you," she adds. "We wouldn't be inviting him to join us in the shower."

Cecil's mouth twitches. "So I'm still invited...?"

"Of course." When Cecil stays withdrawn, Carlos twirls a lock of silver-streaked, shoulder-length curls around his fingers. "Cecil. Kitten. C'mere."

He doesn't comment on the black-tinted rivulets of water flowing down the backs of Cecil's heels the whole time they're under the spray, and makes a point of getting out first, so Cecil can keep his back to the wall while Carlos hands him a towel.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

"I was wrong. I panicked, and I was irrational, and I said things I never should have said. I'm sorry."

Sherie lets out a long, calming breath. If her husband — no, her ex-husband now, he just held up the signed divorce papers on the other end of their Skype connection — hadn't been able to say those words, she's not sure what she would have done.

"This only applies to what I said about Seth's daemon," adds Sam. "I won't apologize for taking the kids out of there. I had no way of knowing you'd be able to get Strexcorp out of town without anybody dying, and neither did you."

"That's fair," says Sherie. Sam hasn't even been told that the kids didn't escape unscathed. Susannah wears elbow-length gloves (black, of course) when she's on a webcam call with her father, and Sherie, reluctantly, figures the war wounds are Su's to reveal rather than hers. "Honestly, I think living outside of Night Vale would be healthier for Seth. But we can't keep shuttling him across the continent every couple of months. If he's going to move back in with you after the end of the school year, you'll have to make an extra effort to prove you won't make him feel unsafe there. Again."

"I will." Sam hesitates. "What about Su? Is she...?"

"Loving it here. Thriving. Talking about applying to Night Vale Community College in the fall." Sherie has even made arrangements that, if something happens to her, her daughter will be able to keep living with the experimental theologians through her college years. (Sherie has made a lot of if-something-happens-to-her arrangements lately.) "If Seth comes back to live with you, I think she'd like to come along and visit."

"And keep an eye on me, you mean."

"Well, yes! Can you blame her?"

Sam sighs. "I want to see them again. I do. My parents might even pick up the cost of the flights...."

"Oh, don't worry about that!" says Sherie quickly. The team has been doing some consulting lately for...well, technically it's still this universe's branch of Strexcorp, although on the books it's now owned by Marcus Vansten, and in practice it's managed by a group of Erikas who answer to Vieja Josie. The important thing is, it pays well. "We've come into a bit of a windfall here lately. I'll take care of the money. You just convince the kids that you can be the father they want to see again."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Desert Bluffs.

The cleaning of the Strexcorp experimental-theology complex is a work in progress. The witches currently handling security don't seem fazed, but Carlos's otherworldly visitors do a lot of wincing as he leads them past entrail-strewn offices and equipment rooms with ruddy smears on the doors.

"I can understand why you'd want a person with a blood-borne disease to be extra-careful around here," says Charles Raimeaux, holding a protective hand over the pocket with his hedgehog daemon. He's one of the people Fey designated to be part of their Smiling-God-trap.

"Is every building in town like this?" asks his boss, Sylvia Kayali. She and her Siamese cat daemon are here for administrative support. "Doesn't seem very welcoming."

"We're working on it, honest," says Carlos. "This way, please."

At last they reach a (sanitized) room set up with tech that Carlos and his team have had a chance to go over. Everyone they recruit for this gets to take their pick of Strex's theological advancements and bring the details back to their own world. No strings attached, nothing legally binding them to the entity still officially incorporated as Strexcorp: all the profits are theirs (or their next-of-kin's) to keep.

Charles instantly breaks for the nearest gadget, Sylvia in tow. Most of the other visitors follow.

Only three hang back. They're witches, Carlos has been told, but from a world where that means something very different — for starters, of the trio of representatives here, two are man-witches. And not trans ones, either.

"Are you sure none of this is...well, evil?" asks a bushy-haired woman who looks about Carlos's age. "I don't mean to be rude, it's just, we've heard some awfully discouraging things about people's souls being cut up."

"For context," adds the man-witch with messy black hair, "back in our world, that's pretty much the darkest of dark magic."

"Everything here has been certified non-evil," Carlos assures them. "But hang on...if your daemons are internal, how is intercision even a thing in your universe?"

"It's a magical process, not a physical one," says the bushy-haired witch. "Although I don't know if what you call the daemon is involved at all. With us, if one corporeal vessel for part of a soul is destroyed, the others can continue, and Ms. Cardinal says that's not the case with souls in your world."

Carlos nods. "It must be a different process. But maybe it's a related one, maybe comparing the two can shed some light on how to treat them...would you happen to have any case studies? Any books I could read?"

"We have so many books! All heavily restricted — you'd never get access —" The witch wrings her hands. "Ooh, but maybe if you had research about it in this world, and we could organize some kind of side trade —"

"We do! I'm writing the latest paper on it right now! If you want —"

"Oi!" interrupts the other man-witch, a tall redhead. "We do still have our main trade to make, so if the two of you could just stop...being each other at each other for a minute, and we could look around this place? All right?"

Carlos hastily promises to catch up with the witch later, and her friends shepherd her off.

 

-{,(((,">

 

Night Vale.

Dana is having a conversation with Tamika and the masked warriors, discussing how best to use them when attacking a fortress none of them will fit inside.

She's also sitting at her grandfather's hand-carved dining room table, along with her mother, her brother and his wife, and Maureen.

The portal in the underground cavern has been closed. Too unstable to risk any longer. They're both astral-projecting themselves here, making slightly awkward conversation with Dana's family, and avoiding the topic of how much they envy the corporeally-present diners for being able to eat.

The hot topic is the mayoral election, which has been moved up, leaving barely any time for the undecided to capture and tame lawn signs proclaiming their allegiances. It's comforting, Dana thinks, to be able to discuss something so small and local and familiar while another part of her brain is planning a siege, and her body and daemon are swathed in a roll of fabric to avoid getting dissolved by a terrible light.

"Hiram McDaniels' blue head makes some good points," observes her brother. "But I'm not too sure about the anti-human leanings of his green head. Might tip me over to the Faceless Old Woman."

"Do you girls have a preference?" asks Mamá.

"We're not old enough to vote," protests Dana. "Or to be hired as programmers for the machines in Hidden Gorge that emit the pulses that actually decide the election."

"Also, both the candidates suck," says Maureen flatly.

Privately, Dana agrees. She never thought much about her town's government before getting lost on another plane of reality, but she's had a few encounters with Mayor Winchell in the course of managing this war. The Mayor is fiercely competent, on levels that Dana wouldn't even have appreciated a year ago. There's no way either potential successor can measure up.

"You know who I'd vote for?" adds Maureen. "Dana."

Dana blinks. "Yes?"

Her sister-in-law catches on more quickly. "She's joking! Just a joke," she exclaims with a forced laugh, eyes darting to the picture window. "Nobody in here is going to run the risk of voting for a write-in."

"Oh, of course not," stammers Dana, with the part of her attention not focused on coordinating witches' flight paths. There's at least one alternate history in which she would have been Mayor, but she isn't qualified at this age, surely. "And with my daemon still unsettled, even if anyone tried, I can't imagine I would be eligible."

"You'll have to be settled by the next election, though," says Maureen. "Right?"

"I...don't know," admits Dana. "What if it never happens at all? The state of my timeline makes it difficult to be precise, but I'm sure I must have set some kind of record by now."

"Someone would have to be the record-setter. Might as well be you," points out Mamá's daemon (an elegant creamy-furred Afghan hound). "All the forms Eustathias has needed to take these past few months, seems to me it's a good thing she's still changing. She'll settle when you're ready."

 

-{,(((,">

 

The afternoon before everything changes, the experimental theologians get together at the edge of the Whispering Forest for a team picnic. No dates, no kids, no close local friends, just the six of them. Seven, if you count what's left of Fleur. (The Li Huas were invited but haven't showed, so no need to work out how to count them.)

They bring pasta salad, truffulafruit pie, a few bottles of locally-grown wine, and gallons of water to dilute the wine so they can make all the toasts they want without anyone getting alcohol poisoning. A glass to the people they've lost. Another to the people they've saved. One to Princeton, which just decided to skip to the point where they award Nirliq her doctorate, already.

Sherie raises an extra toast to Nirliq, for the interview she did while she was in Helsinki that mentioned being bi, and Quentin, for supporting her. "You are softening the landing for the rest of us. Can't thank you enough."

"Nothing to it," says Nirliq. The angel, currently human-shaped (and, for modesty's sake, wearing an orange poncho over his spun-glass silhouette), nods. "It's not a hard stand to take, when you're walking around with a living refutation of the idea that people will go to hell for not being straight."

"The looks on their faces," adds Quentin with a happy sigh.

"It's different when you don't just have yourself to worry about," points out Carlos, to Sherie's quiet gratitude. "Harder. More complicated."

"Oh, sure," says Nirliq, to general murmurs of agreement. "Didn't mean to insinuate."

A desert owl hoots in the distance. Wind rustles the grass. The Forest croons about how comfortable they all look, and how nice their support of each other is, and wouldn't they like to come and picnic under the trees for a while?

Carlos swirls his drink around in his glass. "Hey, listen, if I...don't make it."

There's a flurry of protest from everyone but Sherie.

"No, no, lemme finish." Carlos wags his finger at them. "I could get hit by a bus. Eaten by a pterodactyl. You never know! So...once it's been, like, a couple days at least, so you're sure I'm not coming back this time...you go ahead and out me. Understand? Don't talk about Cecil — don't you set the vultures on my Cecil — but you don't have to leave my closet standing if I'm not around to be in it."

"To keeping the vultures away," says Keith. They'll all drink to that.

 

-{,(((,">

 

According to the report the Sheriff's secret police showed Tamika, they tried to interrogate Kevin once. After the first few injuries, he started laughing uncontrollably. Everyone was so creeped out that they took him right back to his cell and never tried it again.

He's in his room now. Hasn't been showering, Tamika can tell the moment she steps inside. Hasn't been shaving or eating, either; the Sheriff's secret police took the razors out of the room, so he won't get a quick death, but they aren't bothering to force food into him, so he's got hollow cheeks under the bristly white-speckled beard.

He doesn't react to the sound of the door. "Hi," says Tamika out loud. "It's me."

"Oh," says the man on the bed.

"Guess I don't have to ask how you're doing." Tamika wrinkles her nose at an untouched sandwich on the bedside table, starting to sprout mushrooms. That'll turn into a fairy ring if he's not careful. "I can order in something that isn't prison food, if that would help you eat."

"It won't," says Kevin's death.

Tamika should've figured. "Any interest in getting that bar code off your neck? Didn't have the means before, but I've got an associate, says he'll pay for it."

"Don't waste his money," croaks Kevin. "Go away."

"In a minute. Gotta pick up those audiobooks I left you. The library needs them back."

Kevin sighs. "Next to the TV."

The death shows Tamika where the audiobook cases have been neatly piled. All taken care of, all in good condition. He might not care about his own life, but at least he's not in a state where he'd lash out and try to ruin someone else's.

"I brought you some more," says Tamika, unloading the replacements from Rashi's saddlebags. "All new ones. If you were halfway through any of the old ones, I can get them renewed."

"I...finished them all," says Kevin at last. "They pass the time. Thank you."

"Don't mention it."

She finishes switching the books, then adds:

"One more thing I came here for. There's a story I need to tell you in person."

Kevin shrugs. He doesn't tell her to go away again, so she figures it's the most approval she can expect right now.

"There's a girl who works with me. A couple grades lower — she's ten — her name's Janice. She's a big help because, not only does she have dead-on aim with a shotgun and a complete working knowledge of Gaiman, she has foresight. And enough control that she can usually tell when a plan will go very wrong...or very right. Trouble is, the Smiling God screws it up — the light is so bright, it blocks out anything she tries to look at — and right now there's a lot of Smiling God in all our futures, so she's having some trouble dealing."

Tamika takes a breath. Rashi leans his head against her side in support.

"Outside of the Advanced Readers, Janice has a family who loves her: a mother and an uncle. Her uncle is Cecil Palmero — you remember him, right? The guy with the exact same face as you."

"Tried to strangle him," says Kevin listlessly. "Thought it was a hug. I've made people pass out that way. Some I remember seeing afterward — some I don't. Another time I cut his hair...I was so excited he'd finally decided to be a team player...didn't even consider that maybe his mouth was taped over because he hadn't....Why are you telling me this?"

Because thematic parallels make it easier to achieve narrative closure. "Because there's a high chance Janice is gonna have more bad reactions during the siege on the Clouded Mountain. But her mom and her uncle are both gonna be involved in the battle. Which means she's gonna need someone else to take care of her."

Kevin is breathing harder. His limp hands have tensed into twitching fists.

"Someone who has experience," presses Tamika, "in dealing with a kid who's having an attack triggered by bright light."

"Well, aren't you just the subtlest little ray of motivational sunshine?" groans Kevin, sitting up. "How's this going to work? You can't dump a sick child in a jail cell, so where am I going? Tell me what I have to do."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Carlos wakes up when he hits the carpet next to Cecil's bed, narrowly missing a stab in the kidneys from one of Cecil's pointiest shoes.

As he yelps and struggles in the tangle of sheets, a shadowy figure looms over him. In the low light it looks like some unholy hybrid of Kevin and a hooded spectre. Carlos yells something incoherent and brandishes the shoe at its face.

"'S just me!" protests Cecil's voice. "It's me — can't you see?"

Carlos can feel Khoshekh curled up next to a dozing Isaña, but seeing, that's a different story. He scoots backward toward the door, shoe at the ready, and fumbles for the light. The thicket of tiny gold bulbs strung around the bed comes on just as the figure puts back the hood of its nightshirt (one of Cecil's favorites, it has cat ears sewn on top).

Sure enough, it's just Cecil, yawning and rubbing his eyes. "Can you see now? Y'need to feel my teeth?" He bares them in a sleepy grimace.

"Wasn't a Kevin one," mumbles Carlos. Just a generic post-apocalyptic-wasteland nightmare, in which the Smiling God's light was everywhere and an isolated Carlos was trying to call his family even though he knew the phone wouldn't ring. Now he's back in reality, where he spoke to his parents eight hours ago and has his boyfriend in the room. "Keep talking, though? It helps."

"Mmkay. But I'm not singing you to sleep this time. 'S late, and I'm tired."

"Uh-huh." Carlos makes his way back to bed. "That's fair. Just...say some things only Cecil would say."

Cecil considers...then says a few short lines in a Northern language. "Minä rakastan sinua. Haluan jakaa ilot ja surut kanssasi, ja olla sinulle uskollinen, kunnes kuolema meidät erottaa."

Carlos actually recognized the first line of that, thanks to a bit of side research he's done into Cecil's mother's tongue. "Love you too."

 

-{,(((,">

 

Desert Bluffs.

Dana is all over the place, checking on people, making last-minute connections. She makes sure the commanders of the various otherworldly armies have distributed radio earpieces to all their soldiers. She translates an inspirational speech from Tamika that broadcasts through all of them. She talks to the leaders of the branches of non-military support, making sure they're set for food, construction materials, medical supplies.

She drops back into her body for long enough to get a status update on Fey, then projects herself out again to appear in Enigma's room. The human component of Project 37 is still bristling with the implants that attach him to the rest of the machinery, but he isn't actively hooked up to it now, he's sitting in a hospital wheelchair and using a stress ball lifted from some Strex middle-manager's office to practice his grip.

"Dana," says Caleb. He's not wearing the full-body suit now, just gloves on his hands and a mask over his nose and mouth. "Is it time?"

"It is."

No amount of physical therapy is going to un-paralyze Enigma's legs. Caleb basically lifts him back into his usual chair, then starts plugging in wires and connecting leads, preparing for the war's truth-reading needs to be fulfilled in this world while Fey is busy in another.

The restraints, though, never go back on. Once Enigma is getting input from his cameras again, he waves in Dana's direction. "Good luck."

At the same time, another part of Dana's consciousness is manifesting in front of a team of twenty-six people. Each of these is equipped with a terrible-light-blocking/astral-network-joining device.

It looks like an umbrella, Carlos admitted when pressed. It has the same basic shape, and it would be effective for keeping out the rain, so you might be tempted to call it an umbrella. But with a full bloodstone circle suspended in its tines, and a protective layer of terrible-light-blocking material over its bell, it is way more theological than that.

(It also conducts anbaric current safely to the ground, and can withstand pressures of up to 8,000 feet below sea level. Carlos wanted to be thorough, okay.)

"Everything else is in place. I can be with you as soon as you're set up," says Dana to the group. To Tamika, she formally declares, "Send them through."

 

-{,(((,">

 

A desert not unlike Night Vale (but not like it, either).

A handful of offroad vehicles sputter through a broad window, and onto a stretch of sand hidden in shadow. The floating base of the Clouded Mountain itself is directly overhead.

Carlos drives the team's faltering old pickup truck, a few passengers riding in the back. The tailgate still hasn't been replaced after being dissolved by the terrible light. Its cargo, human as well as technological, is held in place by an intricate network of bungee cords and hope.

Fey's machinery has been securely relocated to the basalt fortress. She's drawing power from the same ever-present energy field that keeps Dana's and Maureen's phones charged, and they have a Rusakov-particle battery in place to serve as a backup in case that goes down. When Carlos turns to the frequency that holds WZZZ back in Night Vale, he hears the old familiar numbers and chimes: partly as a test broadcast, partly as coded signals giving the positions of the cars. (The Internet may work out here, but GPS doesn't.)

Carlos drops off the riders one by one, until at last he parks alone at his final stop. Probably the final stop this truck will ever make.

He didn't bring much. A cheap portable radio. Expensive headphones (he wants to hear every timbre and syllable of Cecil's voice with the best clarity money can buy). His favorite chapel coat. The piece of highly technical theological equipment sitting in the trunk, which he retrieves and plants in the sand so he and Isaña are safely in its shadow.

Fey is still on the radio when he feels Dana reaching out for his mind. Carlos grips the pole of his not-umbrella and follows her invitation into the network. Two people become five, then twelve — he gets a mental wave from Sherie as she taps in — until all twenty-six are linked together. They're ready whenever Tamika is.

Soon enough, past the curved brim of his shield, Carlos spots a disturbance in the sky.

It's a speck first, then a smudge, but it widens every second. Someone is flying Tamika in a straight line through the air, and she's slicing with the Knife as she moves, so the fabric of the universe splits open in her wake to reveal the deep velvet of Carlos's homeworld night sky. Partially stars. Mostly void.

Pinched shut at either end and spread wide in the middle, the opening starts to take on the shape of an eye. Especially once it's big enough that the waning crescent moon over Night Vale hangs luminous in its center.

One last set of chimes in Carlos's ears fades into silence.

"The place you fight cruelty is where you find it," intones Cecil's voice, solemn and clear. "And the place you give help is where you see it most needed. Welcome...to the battlefield."