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A Blinking Light Up On The Clouded Mountain

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

 

Hello, listeners. Listeners of every race, gender, nationality, species, language, creed, homeworld, and level of corporeality. Listeners who share one thing in common: we refuse to let any more worlds fall to a Smiling God.

This is Cecil Palmero, coming to you live from the broadcast studio of Republic of Heaven Community Radio.

All of you have radio receivers. All of them have been enchanted so that my Spanish should be comprehensible to your ears. You will follow the lead of your direct commanders unless otherwise stated, but my voice will be with you throughout this battle...along with the voice of my co-host, Fey. Say hello to the people, Fey!

"Hello, everyone! We are the champions, my friends, and we'll keep on fighting to the end! Welcome to the new age, to the new age — and remember, they say in Heaven, love comes first? We'll make Heaven a place on Earth!"

I could not have said it better myself.

 

__~/ \~__

 

Our target is the Clouded Mountain: the multiverse's most prime piece of real estate when it comes to entities that want to set themselves up as Gods over every world. It is a fortress, a prison, a palace, and an office building, all at once. And I am getting reports that its first line of defense is faltering —

It is falling —

It is gone! The field that blocks all intruders from reaching the surface of the mountain has been disabled, thanks to an interworldly coalition chosen by Fey, organized by our very own former intern Dana, and containing two of Night Vale's favorite experimental theologians.

One of these theologians is my very own heroic boyfriend, Carlos. He doesn't like it when I talk about him too much on the radio, so I'll keep this quick and just say that I love him very much.

Thanks to a trade-secret process, a window has been opened between the world where our army has gathered and this world, and our airborne troops are circling the mountain as I speak. Its internal architecture is highly sealed-off now, but once opened onto many doors, gateways, balconies, and terraces, all made of a solid cloud-related material. Fey will now begin the coded directions aiming you at the entrances most vulnerable to your skills.

"13. 103. 115. 96. 40." [Chimes.]

We are honored to be joined today by witches from several different worlds. Some are ancient, ageless beings with magical skills as subtle and powerful as the frost on the tundra. Others are middle-aged office workers who carry sticks that shoot lasers! And I'm getting reports that this latter group is already blasting away.

"121. 72. 106. 10. 63." [Chimes.]

We have the support of the mighty Glow Cloud, ALL HAIL. The Cloud has expressed a desire to try ingesting some of the material of the Clouded Mountain, you know, just to see if it gains any special powers that way. If it doesn't work out, expect to see the Cloud spitting dead antelopes at the nearest doorway in short order.

"126. 82. 123. 74. 49." [Chimes.]

We have several fine squadrons of dragons, whose plan, I believe, is to set things on fire.

"30. 61. 12. 94. 81." [Chimes.]

Yes, I'm reading a report right now, and it definitely indicates general intentions of burning.

"88. 93. 92. 23. 8." [Chimes.]

Our forces also include a tiny dragonfly-riding army, who will be looking for small ways in that they can pry open, and trying not to get set on fire...

"83. 101. 55. 115. 7." [Chimes.]

...a host of what I am being told are angels, native to no world and to every world all at once...

"58. 25. 69. 127. 44." [Chimes]

...and an all-star team of Night Vale's most intimidating non-evil residents, wielding rocks, shotguns, and flamethrowers, already parachuting down to land on the clouded slopes.

A special congratulations to team 63-Delta-Squid! You are the first group inside.

 

__~/*\~__

 

Sherie sits cross-legged on the warm sand, one hand holding Ahisamach in her lap, the other curled around the support pole of the light-blocking umbrella. Most of her colleagues are sitting or kneeling. All are holding steady against the low boil of astral pressure from keeping the Mountain clear.

From Cecil's descriptions of the first wave of attack, nobody in the Mountain was expecting their strongest defense to be smothered this fast. Some entrances boast a pair of eyeless security guards. Others are sealed over with plywood or concrete, and there's no one at all standing sentry when the walls are burned or smashed.

A tremor rumbles through the ground below. I don't like the feel of that, thinks Carlos from another point in the mental network.

We're setting off explosions, thinks one of their colleagues. How is this a surprise?

Explosions on a mountain whose base is floating several meters off the ground, puts in Sherie. This isn't us.

Cecil is reporting proudly on the setup of a team of former Boy Scouts to blast their way in with C4...when his tone changes. "The alarm is out. Strexcorp's parent organization is awake. Our enemies are praying...and rallying their weapons, just in case their prayer is not successful in wiping us all off the map.

"The ground is shaking. I cannot feel it here in the fortress on a distant mountainside, but our ground forces can feel the rumbling. They are afraid, and I cannot tell them not to be. All I can tell them is to be brave.

"In other news —"

"Excuse me," cuts in a new voice. Sherie recognizes it, and thinks five-headed dragon Hiram McDaniels — specifically, his gold head for the benefit of her otherworldly comrades.

"You remain the Voice of Night Vale!" yelps Hiram's green head. "You have a solemn duty to cover significant municipal events! Like the mayoral election!"

"I'm sorry, listeners — mayoral candidate Hiram McDaniels has attached himself to the basalt walls of this building, and is trying to push all five heads through a window that will clearly admit two, at most," says Cecil. "Hiram, I assure you, we will report on the results of the election just as soon as the pulses from Hidden Gorge have been transmitted and decoded."

"That's kind of you, Cecil," drawls Hiram's gold head, "but I'm here to give you something fresh and current to report before that even happens, which is: we are withdrawing our candidacy."

Yes! thinks Sherie — then catches herself and blushes, hoping she didn't accidentally broadcast that.

"We entered the race when the likelihood of returning to our original universe seemed so infinitesimally small as to effectively be zero," adds Hiram's blue head. "Now it seems much higher! Approaching one hundred percent!"

"We can go home," sighs Hiram's grey head. For the first time in all the times Sherie has ever heard it speak, it sounds...happy.

Another tremor runs through the sand. The pole of the umbrella vibrates against Sherie's palm. Not badly enough to fall, but she stops holding her mongoose daemon to steady the equipment with both hands until the rumbling stops, just in case.

"I believe this means I've won by default," adds the voice of the woman Sherie has started referring to as Sally. "I would like to thank everyone who supported me, although your support has turned out to be unnecessary to my inevitable —"

"Cecil!" interrupts Fey. "They have un-hooded spectres!"

"Right! Election news later," snaps Cecil, and starts into a long list of warnings. Who is dangerously close to the company's spectres. Whether they are a match for them. Which direction they should run, and how fast.

Heat bubbles up under the mental net, more fiercely than before, even as the rumbling fades.

 

__~/ \~__

 

The lowest rank of eyeless, soulless security guards are not vulnerable to spectres. They are vulnerable to very little. Not loss of limb or loss of blood, not any kind of connection with their fellow beings, not the cruel monotony of getting coffee for the same person day in and day out with no foreseeable advancement to your career.

We, all of us, are vulnerable to so many things. And so we are stalemated at the entrances, as spectres drive us back through the halls and into the air, while the guards with their ghoulish smiles follow. The first serious injuries have occurred. The first serious deaths are not far off.

Spectres are vulnerable to angels, and to the spells of the witches from a world not my own, and so in this cosmic game of rock-paper-viper we summon these armies to the forefront. The humans summon silvery animal forms not unlike daemons, but with the power to repel spectres rather than attract them, penning them in until the angels can descend.

As I said very clearly earlier, these spectres are visible to unsettled children. A pair of Scoutmasters left most of their troop of Blood Pact Scouts to guard a corridor, in blatant defiance of this warning.

The children are now surrounded.

The Scoutmasters are Luís de los Reyes, five foot seven, red hair, lean build, raccoon daemon; and Ben Santos, six foot one, muscular build, frog daemon. Both are in uniform. They are on the northwest side of the Clouded Mountain, descending.

Angels have reached the corridors, but they are too late to save two of the children already, and will be too late for the rest by the time they arrive.

Again, those descriptions are —

Wait — I am being told that both Santos and de los Reyes have taken arrows to the throat. Clearly this is a tragic incident of accidental friendly fire. As they clutch at their wounds in a futile effort to prevent their slow, bloody, hacking deaths, our hearts go out to the friends and families of these terrible, terrible men.

Reinforcements are now being summoned from company subsidiaries in other worlds. Stay alert!

 

__~/*\~__

 

From the ground, her gyropter parked beside the lower portal where the injured are being ferried through, Tamika can see the first wave of enemy backup. They emerge from crags and tunnels in the foothills of the Clouded Mountain: void-dark forms, their heights impossible to estimate at this distance, trailing shadow and flame.

"Is it just me, or do those things have wings?" mutters Tamika. The air advantage is one of their greatest strengths, here. It won't be fun to lose.

"Looks like a trick of the light to me," says Rashi. "But now that you mention it, I'm not sure."

They're itching to get into the air themselves. Hanging back and leading from a safe distance has never been their style. But Tamika is her own trump card, and she can't play herself before the Smiling God shows up.

Also, this vehicle has been enchanted with every notice-me-not spell, invisibility ward, and somebody-else's-problem aura that a dozen different worlds can conjure up. She can't waste its fuel on sidequests, and if she used another gyropter for the purpose she'd never find this one again.

So she sits, one hand on the hilt of the Knife and one on a protective blanket of light-blocking material, both eyes open. Listening to the radio for her cue.

For the moment, Palmero is recommending that Strex's current monsters get taken down by wizards. Lots of wizards.

 

__~/ \~__

 

There is a man in a tan jacket.

He and his daemon are inside the Clouded Mountain. He has passed into the corridors inhabited by executives, where the spectres will not be allowed. He wears a quiver over his shoulder and has an arrow on the string.

One of the Strexcorp regional division presidents has a radio, and has discovered this frequency. She is listening to my voice right now, but she does not speak Spanish and has no linguistic adaptive equipment, so she has no idea that I am talking about her at this very moment.

She also does not know that, five minutes ago, the man in the tan jacket came into her office. When he was there, she saw him, and spoke to him. Now she has forgotten him entirely.

He is eight offices and one left turn away from her now. He is searching for the room in which Strexcorp's otherworldly summonings are coordinated.

He is two floors too low.

Now he's looking for stairs! Did someone give him a radio? I suppose they must have. I suppose he must be an ally.

I have complicated feelings about him, but no memories to substantiate these feelings, so I will trust the judgment of whoever gave him the radio.

The man in the tan jacket has complicated feelings too. He is confused, and hurt, and angry. He has been confused, hurt, and angry for a long time, about many things...but at the top of the list, right now, is his name.

Put together with the name of his daemon, it means "the daylight-god, with us."

Ooh, that's awkward.

It's an unfortunate coincidence at best. But his mother, who chose their names, saw the future sometimes, which means she might have chosen it with purpose. She was not, as far as he knows — no, wait, Fey is confirming that she was definitely not — a worshiper of the Smiling God, so she didn't do it to praise or curry favor with that monstrous entity.

If he had been born a girl, he was told once, his name would have translated to "my father's joy." (Oh, that's sweet.)

So why, as a boy, couldn't he have had a name like that? Was it some kind of cruel joke? His mother could be cruel, he knows, but not to her children. Or so he used to think. Never to her children.

The stairs are to his right.

 

__~/*\~__

 

The rumbling is constant now. It is deep and low and goes right down to Sherie's bones.

"Why is the building shaking?" demands Sally. "I do not like it. My first act as mayor will be to take a stand against the unraveling of all things."

"You're not Mayor yet," says Cecil sternly. "Not until every vote has been counted, every incorrect voter has been rounded up and taken to the secret undisclosed location which everybody knows is in the abandoned mine shaft, and every pulse has been interpreted. But that's a salient question. Fey! Why is the building shaking?"

"That would be the imminent unraveling of all things, Cecil!"

"And what can we do to stop it?"

"For our ground troops who are listening in: be strong, and support each other! For the angels: be ready to generate protective pillars of bright black light, just in case they don't make it. For everyone else: be ready to duck into the nearest shadow, for the same reason."

"What are the exact chances that they won't be able to cut it?" demands Hiram's blue head. "Give me a fraction. Or a percentage."

The scenery around Sherie is getting brighter. As if the sun is coming out from behind a cloud...but it's not directional, it's everywhere at once, lighting up all sides of the dunes, of the rusted wrecks, of the weather-beaten hunks of stone. Only her umbrella, and the handful of others close enough for her to see, casts any shadow.

"Hiram, you need to get to the lee of this building, now," says Cecil sharply. The rumbling is audible in the background of his microphone now, a tinny echo of the commotion shaking the ground out here. "Everyone fighting at the Mountain, get to the nearest shade. Or through the nearest portal. Faceless Old Woman, I don't know where you are —"

"In the pipes, of course."

"— okay, stay there. I have every faith in the skills of our ground forces, but on the slim chance that —"

The solid earth rumbles, and a searing, rushing heat slams against their astral net, and Sherie loses all track of what Cecil is saying.

Hold on! urges Carlos, mind-to-mind. We've got this. We can do this. Hold on.

 

__~/*\~__

 

The pillar of light rises endlessly upward, and we are all afraid. It can be seen for hundreds of miles. It casts shadows everywhere. It is everything.

Even people who can't see it are being affected. Those with strong psychic powers or high astral sensitivity are especially vulnerable. Please check on your colleagues! Some of them are not all right!

An otherworldly wizard with a scarred face sags against the nearest wall, clutching his forehead.

A dark-haired woman who throws around as much flame as a dragon cries out — don't touch her, teammates! She'll adjust on her own, and she might accidentally set you on fire in self-defense.

A tiny witch on a borrowed branch of cloud-pine — Janice! — loses her balance — Vithya, make a hard left now and fly as fast as you can —

She's caught, praise the beams!

Also caught: the Smiling God.

It is bright and hot and terrible, and will gladly devour us all if its power is unleashed, but for the moment...it is contained.

 

__~/*\~__

 

So far today, Dana is in, on average, in three places at once.

 

Night Vale.

The rebuilding efforts are stalled over a misunderstanding regarding what items are acceptable salvage for the masked army, versus what needs to stay in Night Vale's hands. Neither party understands the other's language well enough to untangle the conflict.

Dana hears them both out and sorts through the dilemma. Әliʃə is disheartened, but gives the zoo its spiderwolves back.

 

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

There aren't many people who can find Tamika's gyropter right now. Dana projects another part of her attention into the passenger seat. "Do you need anything else before you go?"

Tamika is already revving up the rotors. "Knife, cloak, water, slingshot, Butler novel. I'm set."

 

Desert Bluffs.

Janice is crying soundlessly, tears streaking her cheeks, when Ɑrt͡ʃi sets her and her daemon (beetle-shaped, hiding in her pocket) into a waiting wheelchair at the hospital's front gate. Kevin stands beside it, wearing the cleanest clothes Dana has ever seen him in, plus opaque sunglasses over his empty eye sockets. His death holds the handlebars.

Another facet of Dana walks with them as they take her to a nearby room. It's dark, heavy curtains over the windows, and quiet. Kevin has some things laid out on a table; by cautious touch he finds a clean cloth and dips it in cool water, then kneels beside the chair and offers it to her. "Here. This is for your face. Can you take it?"

It takes some fumbling from Janice in turn, but she gets her hand on the cloth. "It's too bright," she says, wiping her eyes.

"I know," says Kevin gently. "How about the noise level? Is it too loud?"

"Nuh-uh."

"Are you hungry? Thirsty?"

Janice shakes her head.

Kevin waits sightlessly for a couple of seconds, then, when he doesn't hear his death retrieving anything to eat, continues. "Do you want to get under the covers and hold a pillow over your head for a while?"

The girl's daemon turns into a cat, and squints worriedly at Dana. She nods in approval — yes, this is a legitimate offer, not the world's politest way of setting her up to be smothered — so Janice sniffles and says, "Yes, please."

 

__~/*\~__

 

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

Our bloodstone-circle network is doing an incredible job. Any objects left unprotected within their boundaries are already fading into translucence, but our heroes are safe within their protective shadows, and are holding firm.

The Smiling God hungers, but can reach nobody to devour. It rages, but has nothing to destroy.

Inside the mountain, the interworldly communications have been successfully disabled. Senior management did manage to open a window that summons a fleet of human-piloted giant robots, but our army includes dragons, and, as we all know, giant lizards defeat giant robots. That's just science.

Medical team to level 19, wing Σ. Bring a defibrillator.

The group currently entering the deepest experimental-theology chambers is walking into a trap. This area can be remotely sealed off and climate-controlled. Get out. Get out now.

Medical team to level 23, wing Ρ. Bring stitches, gauze, and dittany.

There is a hostage situation in the front office of the division responsible for invading Kevin's world. The accounts receivable manager is not bluffing. Her weapon is sixty percent charged.

Medical team to the southern flank of the mountain. Bring a defibrillator. A dragon-sized one.

A gyropter has taken a hit. Smoke trails from its fuselage as it careens downward, out of control. The occupants need to parachute out — there is no one close enough and strong enough to come to its rescue in time.

A witch's daemon is flying towards it anyway. He sails forward and upward, aiming for the landing skids — he seizes one in his beak, and with one sharp yank changes its trajectory, sending it careening in a new direction — directly towards a giant robot. Again, the pilot is listening to me as I say these very words, but has no idea that I am describing the rotors which will shred his vehicle's casing like paper in approximately eight seconds.

...Fey? This daemon, the one with such vicious destructive power, must have been either very strong or very large, right?

"Oh, very large! I'll display his specs on the screen for Khoshekh."

I see. And...and does he have a radio with him?

"No."

Oh....

"But his human does."

Oh.

I —

Äiti? Kaipaan sinua. Teit joitain asioita väärin kun olin lapsi, mutta annan anteeksi! En tiedä, mitä veljelleni tapahtui, en tiedä, oliko syy sinun, mutta en välitä siitä. Haluan vain nähdä sinut jälleen. Palaa kotiin.

 

__~/*\~__

 

Hot wind whirls around the desert plain, flinging sprays of sand into the umbrella's shadow. Sherie is standing now, braced on the pole, mongoose perched on her shoulders.

The wrecks and rocks that used to be in sight have faded to pale glass silhouettes of themselves. Looking at them, or indeed looking at anything but the bloodstones around her head and the ground at her feet, makes Sherie's eyes hurt. She can barely see her nearest two colleagues, pinpricks of darkness in a downpour of sunshine.

Mentally, of course, they might as well be standing in a circle with joined hands, while the power of the Smiling God burns and slams against them. Praying for Tamika to hurry.

I'm really glad you're all here right now, thinks Carlos toward the rest of them. Without you...and Cecil's broadcast...I would have no idea if the battle was still going on. No way to be sure I wasn't the only thing left in some kind of vast empty field of devastation, like the photo negative of the Void.

Morbid fellow, isn't he, thinks a man from one of the internal-daemon universes.

Now, darling, can you blame him? scolds the woman who arrived with him. She sounds like an English-speaking version of Delphine. Most people haven't gone up against deities before. Even the godlings we've faced off against were never quite this fearsome.

Now, hold on a minute. I can still see people, protests Sherie. And plenty of landscape, bare and depressing as it is. It hurts to look, but it's there. How bright is it for the rest of you?

The group sends a flurry of mental images, and Sherie stitches them together in her mind's eye like readings from a Rusakov array. It's not a single solid, unwavering pillar of light; there's a gradient of brightness around them. Some of the viewers, like Sherie, are stationed at the fringes. Carlos is close to its heart.

With the way he's apparently seeing nothing but solid, blinding sunshine outside his circle of normality, it would be even more terrifying if he wasn't.

 

__~/*\~__

 

"Hello! Fey here. Cecil had to step out to get some water. Let me try to keep you up to speed.

"An update on the Glow Cloud. It is still possessed, by the most common medical definitions of 'possession', but the good news is, it can't transfer that possession to other people. So none of you are going to be HAILING THE SMILING GOD and then forgetting the whole thing later on.

"A group of you are standing at the entrance of some kind of massive vault, and the labels are in a script that seems vaguely Cyrillic, but that none of you, not even the native Russian speakers, can decipher. That is the cold storage vault! Please don't try to break in. There are zero living hostiles hiding out in there, and if you disrupt the equipment you could kill a lot of people.

"The witch with the egret daemon has lost too much blood. She can't...she's going into brain death. There is nothing you can do.

"...

"Oh! The mayoral election. Um, there is an election official standing on the steps of City Hall, saying something about a hold-up with the machine that makes the pulses. And there's Pamela Winchell holding a press conference five yards to the left, saying not to panic, that the election will be ready when it is ready! She says this through gritted teeth, while digging her hands into the side of her podium so violently her fingernails leave dents in the wood.

"Um, the bloodstone network is still hanging in there. Even in the face of terrifying light, and unbearably cold heat, and the wind whipping currents of sand into their shadows and rocking their equipment back and forth. They dig their heels in deeper, and cover their faces, and persevere.

"Stay strong! If we hold on together, I know our dreams will never die! Better stand tall when they're calling you out: don't bend, don't break, baby, don't back down!"

 

__~/*\~__

 

The giant pillar of terrible light is easy to navigate by, because it's impossible to miss. It's also hard to navigate by, because it's impossible to look at directly.

"Could do with some navigation advice right about now, Palmero," mutters Tamika, as her gyropter circles closer.

"The man in the tan jacket is wondering about his name again," says Palmero in her ears.

Tamika groans out loud. Is that relevant to anything right now?

"He is standing watch for a team of field medics in a newly-blood-spattered office, and there are no hostiles close enough to be a threat, so he has time to think. He wonders if he's been looking at it all wrong. What if he starts from the premise that his mother gave him this name to be kind?

"Like so many other people, his mother no longer recognizes him. She cannot give him comfort, or wisdom, or advice. The only words of hers that he has left...is his name.

"What message would be important enough for her to embed in the one set of words he would carry with him for the rest of his life? What is the one thing he wants above all else...and that he never would have wanted, or needed, if he had been a daughter instead of a son?"

Whatever he's getting at, Tamika doesn't know enough of the backstory to put it together. She focuses on descending toward the wind-whipped sand at the edges of the light.

Can't fly straight in. The gyropter was too complicated to cover in impenetrable light-blocking fabric, so even if she and Rashi cloaked themselves in it, their ride would dissolve around them in midair....

"He wants to be remembered again. So what if the Smiling God he's been trying to thwart for a decade now is, in fact, his answer? What if the magic that has choked him for so many years can be burned away by the light?"

Fey's voice gasps. "It can!"

"But it'll kill him," protests Palmero. "Won't it?"

"Not if he times it exactly right. Not if the Smiling God is destroyed in the moment between dissolving the spell and dissolving him. I can calculate the timing!"

"If we remember to do it...oh! Listeners, Dana has just appeared in my studio."

"I will remember for you," says Dana's voice over the airwaves. "Find someone who can be redirected to keep watch, and leave the rest to me."

"Thank you, Dana! ...And she's gone. But, wow, I am so glad she's willing to be on top of...whatever we were just talking about."

 

__~/*\~__

 

Is it as windy for everyone else as it is for me? thinks Carlos across the network. Or did I get lucky enough to be in the center of that too?

Sherie and the others picture the breeze tossing their hair and clothing around. It's a minor struggle for most of them compared to the blaze against their minds, but it certainly isn't helping.

From the mental images Carlos sends back, he's putting half his effort into staying standing. His armadillo daemon is rolled up shut and half-buried in a hollow in the sand, and it's only the pressure of his shoe that keeps her from being picked up and blown away.

Lucky we built these things to withstand up to eight thousand feet of ocean pressure, huh? thinks Sherie, trying to sound upbeat.

She doesn't broadcast the observation that Carlos is not built to withstand that much pressure.

I don't suppose one of us could...go to him? asks one of their otherworldly colleagues. Maybe one of you with all the magic has a few tricks you could use?

That would break the formation, which is a big factor in why we're strong enough to do this at all, warns Sherie. Not that it isn't a kind idea! You're very nice to think of it! I'm just saying, if we tried it, we would be crushed. Within minutes.

"The fall of the Smiling God is only minutes away," says Cecil's voice over her headphones, as if on cue. "We are waiting on...something. For some reason. All of us are forever indebted to you, ground forces, for trapping an enemy more powerful than most of us can truly comprehend. We are indebted to John Peters, you know, the farmer, for working this out. We are indebted to —

"— Carlos!"

That's the moment when Sherie feels Carlos's mind drop out of the network.

 

__~/*\~__

 

Part of Dana is already in the makeshift studio. "I'm on it. I'm getting him out of there," she tells Cecil, simultaneously trying to project herself to Carlos's location —

— and getting a visceral reminder that, of course, the direct power of the Smiling God can block her out without a second thought. At least she's been more successful in appearing at Emmanuel's side, hurrying him along...and at Tamika's side, urging her to wait, please wait.

"He doesn't have time!" cries Cecil. "Tamika, go, go now! Forget the thing. Whatever it was, it's not important. He'll die!"

"He's not dying!" exclaims Fey. "It's talking to him! He has time."

Oh, praise be, that means Dana can go for a corporeal rescue.

All of her attention snaps back into her physical body. She's cloaked in a swath of light-blocking fabric. Eustathias is perched on the back of an angel statue, phoenix-formed, looking down on the battlefield. Real angels stand on the parapets between the statues, armed with spears, solemn and terrible.

"What's it saying?" chokes Cecil, over the radio in her earpiece.

One look from Dana, and her daemon knows what to do. She leaps from the stone halo and cuts a trail of flame through the air, heading for the pillar of light.

It won't hurt her. She is not a creature that is burned. She is a creature that burns.

"I don't know! I've fried half a circuit board trying to calculate it."

Dana gets to her feet and tosses the fabric aside in one smooth motion.

Dana is a creature that burns.

"I don't — I can't —"

"Cecil," says Fey, low and urgent. "Cecil, there's news. Let go of Khoshekh so he can look."

A beat later, Cecil stutters, "The next mayor of Night Vale — is Dana Cardinal."

That is lucky, thinks Dana, rising from the stone surface. Mayoral powers mean you can fly.

 

__~/*\~__

 

Carlos hits the ground, eyes snapped shut — sees right through his eyelids — claps his hands over his eyes, still too bright — rolls over and presses his face to the sand, arms thrown over the back of his head — doesn't help, the light is pouring right through his limbs, through his skull, through his brain.

Worse than the hurt is the panic, the helpless disorientation. His headphones are already dissolved. The afterimage of Cecil shouting his name echoes in his ears....

...and then something descends, and it all goes mute.

It's like the mirror version of a spectre. Instead of cold despair flowing over you, it brings warmth. Hope. Happiness.

A smile.

(Hello, little experimental theologian.)

No. No, no, no.

(It's not hurting you. It's not even taking over your mind. You hate being controlled like that, don't you? It doesn't want to upset you.)

"Stay out of my head!" rasps Carlos.

(It wouldn't fit in your head, little theologian. But it can come into your heart, if you let it.)

As if he would ever

(Remember when you had to leave your scholarly idol's world behind?)

He does, yes.

(There was so much to learn. So much to know. You got a taste, and then you were ripped away. Remember how that left you.)

I got better, thinks Carlos furiously.

Sure, it felt like being tossed out of a warm bed into a cold pond. Sure, he had a few down hours here and there, staring blankly into space and wondering if his work had any point when it was so hopelessly behind. So what? He adjusted. He kept working. He's been so proud of the things he's done since.

(And so happy to take over the local branch of the company. So delighted to pick over a single division's scraps.)

(Imagine how much more could be given to you. Imagine being able to collaborate with theologians from any world's version of Strexcorp — or Kakos, or Prescott, or whatever their reality calls it. Imagine being the perfect leader of a perfect research team, following the cutting edges of every type of research, under the cutting light of a Smiling God.)

(Would you study the light itself? How it looks through your spyglasses, how it registers on your devices? Would you study this universe, less than a thousand miles in diameter, defying everything you think of as laws of physics? Would you take casual research trips to the world of the dead?)

(You could do it. Believe in a Smiling God. Accept it into your heart. It is everything. Help it out of this trap, and it could give you everything.)

Carlos pushes himself up on his elbows.

He has no idea which way his daemon rolled, and she can't run to his voice while sealed shut, so he doesn't stop to fumble around in the blinding infinite sunlight. Without seeing the ground, his sense of balance is shot all to hell — but as long as the pain is being suppressed, he's going to do this standing.

He resists the useless reflex to cover his eyes. Ignores the sensation of blood trickling down his cheeks.

"You're wrong," he says out loud. "You're trying a lot of fantastic ideas to win me over, but you've missed the most important thing."

(Has it, though? Has it really?)

"You have! Because I am not an experimental theologian!"

If it's possible for a god to be shocked, this one is.

"I — am — a — scientist!" yells Carlos into the brightness. "I study science, not theology or gods! And you have nothing to offer me!"

 

__~/*\~__

 

Dana dives. Emmanuel dives. Tamika charges, knife upraised.

Carlos falls, conscious mind whiting out with pain, gone before he hits the ground.