Cecil is old enough to be afraid only of the things that matter, and the desert does not matter; whatever road you walk down, you always come home again. So it ever has been and so it ever will be.
When he has a sudden sneezing fit, doubles over with the force of it, and straightens up to see a vast gulf of a pit yawning in front of him, therefore, he is quite sensibly afraid, because this is not home. This is not part of Night Vale’s scenery. The bizarre machines down there are easily as tall as the Scout Hall from which he ran just hours earlier, humiliated and sobbing, unable to braid intestines for the framework of a soft meat crown as deftly as the other pack members. He does not know when he crossed the town line; this feels like he crossed the state line, maybe even the world line.
Behind him there is only desert. Below him, only the pit.
Something down there wants him. He can feel it.
He steels his nerves and starts down the road, polished black shoes gritting in the gravel, his tie flapping in the soft but steady breeze. Before too long he pulls it from around his neck and whips it around his forehead to keep his hair out of his eyes. He has to squint to see where he’s going; night is inexorably falling.
Down and down and down. The road curves almost imperceptibly but when Cecil glances back he’s overcome with a sense of awe at how steep it seems, how far he’s come.
(The word mountain crosses his mind and is gone.)
He would say it takes him forty-five minutes to reach the bottom except that he’s not wearing a watch and he’s not sure what this place’s time is subject to, nor how long he’s been here versus how long he was still running in Night Vale. He’s breathing quickly but not too hard; his toes and calves hurt from braking during his descent. The air is sharp with the smell of sulfur.
Up close the machines are even more colossal than Cecil realized. They loom silently in the night, like the toys of ancient gods left on the floor of some unimaginable playroom. Yet it’s not these not-artifacts that have drawn him here. No. Whatever wants him is deeper still, incredible as it seems that this place has a deeper.
When he finds his way around the last of the machines and stands facing the comparatively small black hole in the rockface, his first instinct is to turn and run, just in case it’s not actually too late.
The first light he has seen down here is the dancing red sparks in the mouth of the hole.
Cecil walks forward, following the light. He is aware that this is not just any cave, but a mine; the machines tell him that, and before he gets too far into the tunnel the abandoned pickaxes and kerosene lamps confirm it.
He’s barely able to spot the axes and lamps though. For one thing, there’s a lot of rubble. For another, where there isn’t rubble, there are bones. Some are dust. Others are not. He sees the glint of gold in the light and for a second thinks he knows what these people were digging and dying for, but then a closer look reveals it’s the feathers of an eagle, a perversely neat array around its otherwise bare skeleton.
Down and down and deeper and deeper. The sparks lead him unerringly through rocks and bones. He can hear a soft roaring sound as if some giant creature is breathing in here and he is walking toward its mouth. Yet he can’t stop. The tang of sulfur has given way to the low reek of spoiled meat.
There is another light ahead, waxing and waning, reddish and dull. Red means stop. Red means danger. Red means get out. Run. Fast.
The mine opens out into a cavern and Cecil actually does stop, but only because his breath is taken away by the scope of the place. Granted, it’s nowhere near as big as the pit-mine he walked down into to get here, but it’s vast in its own way.
There’s a hut-like stone building off to one side, and another hole, this one in the floor, straight in front of him. The stones on the ground here have distinct shapes; he sees snarling wolf mouths, outstretched bat wings, curved scorpion tails, and things he can't even name.
And all around the hole are the real animals.
The snakes rattle lazily, looking at him with bright bead eyes. The spiders form restless moving patterns between the snakes. Rats. Mice. Crows. He spots a heap of fur over near the hut that unfolds itself into a coyote pack. The ceiling above comes alive with the flutter of brown-furred wings. It’s as if they’ve been frozen in stasis, waiting.
The roaring grows louder and he knows it’s coming from the hole in the ground. His feet carry him forward again and the animals part for him and Cecil only manages to keep from tumbling headlong into the hole by grinding his right heel down on his left toes. It hurts, but not as badly as the hole would. He can see light refracting through quartz like teeth.
Something is coming out of the hole.
Like an oily smoke snake called forth from some malign magician’s basket, it raises up, extending toward him, splitting at the tip like a fist unrolling into a hand. Cecil covers his ears against the roaring, but hears the words that come out of it with his mind.
Cay de mun.
Kai, Cecil thinks. He will not open his mouth. He bites down on his lower lip, fangs piercing his skin out of distress, and the taste of blood fills his mouth. He flattens his palms against his ears and takes one step back and feels something crunch under his heel, and that’s when the smoke-thing pounces. He’s off balance and goes down on his back and it’s on him, on his face, in his face, in his nostrils and, when he gasps for air, in his mouth.
Then it is in his eyes and the world goes dark.
The insistent rattle of the snakes shoves itself through the roaring and through his palms clamped to his ears and Cecil starts praying, not for escape, but for a swift end. He can’t breathe. He can’t see. He can feel the bizarre shapes of the can tahs under his back and has a moment to think that they hurt, although wondering how he knew what they were called doesn't cross his mind.
Everything is darkness and triumphant red sparks.
Then the snakes' rattling reaches a fever pitch and suddenly he can breathe again, as if the strange smoke has been snatched from his lungs. The air tastes of ashes and ancient blood, but Cecil gulps it in with relief. He blinks his eyes open but it's still all darkness. At least the red sparks have receded.
Something coils around his left arm and Cecil screams. He flails at it with his right hand, heedless of any potential bites. But he isn’t bitten. A tongue flutters curiously over his skin.
And then he’s looking up at himself.
Cecil has never seen himself in shades of grey before. He knows for a fact that his Scout uniform isn’t grey; it’s the standard black shirt and red sash. But everything is grey now; his badges are darker patches against the paler grey of his shirt, and his face is a scared blur above it. His tie is still knotted around his head, keeping his hair out of his eyes, not that it matters now.
Basinu’yu buih. The voice is not the malignant one from before, the one ordering him cay de mun, which is not his language; it’s a soft caress compared to that, albeit one with a distinct hissing inflection. The snake coils up and around his shoulders and settles its wedge-shaped head in against his throat.
Now he -- they -- are looking down at the hole in the ground. It seems darker than before, although that could be just the difference between his own vision and the basinu’yu buih. The malignant red sparks have turned a stark white and, as Cecil watches, they swirl down into the small hole at the bottom of the pit and are gone.
He has never been so glad to be alone with snakes before.
The rest of the animals have retreated to the perimeter of the cave, but the snakes part as he slowly gets to his feet, flowing ahead of and beside him but leaving plenty of room for his stumbling steps.
The journey out of the tunnel is a literal blur, since the light levels aren’t enough for his snake eyes to distinguish more than light and dark. When he finally emerges from the mouth of the mine, the brightness of the stars and the moon is simultaneously sharp and soothing.
Since the moon is the easiest thing to see, he takes it as his guide, starting up the long road out of the pit with his face turned toward the sky, the snake’s eyes scanning the ground for obstacles.
Somewhere between the top of the road and the first stunted tree looming up out of the dark, the taste of the air changes, from pennies and sulfur to something more comfortingly earthy, and Cecil knows he is home again without having to look back to see if the pit is gone.
He looks back anyway, the basinu’yu buih taking a second longer to turn than his head does, and sees only a bland stretch of road disappearing into the desert. Looking up, the moon tells him he’s been gone either an impossible mere fifteen minutes, or a day and fifteen minutes -- or it could be a month and fifteen minutes.
There’s only one way to find out, really, and that’s to go back to the Scout Hall, where either the pack will be cleaning up their crafts for the end of night pomegranate juice and sugar cookies, or the place will be deserted.
Cecil steps up his pace, his feet moving a lot more surely now that he’s back in his own territory, regardless of what time of day or indeed which day it is. He moves through town, passed by a handful of cars, one of which flashes its lights at him in the familiar pattern of the Sheriff’s Secret Police’s curfew code. Cecil fires off a Scout salute and the car moves on.
The door to the Scout Hall is open, light streaming out. Everything is still mostly in shades of gray, but now there’s a faint overlay of color to the world, like a comic book left out in the sun too long and faded.
He doesn’t know what to expect when he walks through the door -- ridicule, probably -- but the Scouts look up from the circle on the floor where they’re arranging their bloodstones for the closing ritual, and even with his dimmed sight he can see them all freeze. They still look like the people he knows, at least, and not months or years older, either.
A high, fluting shriek breaks the silence and the whole pack scatters and runs, most out of the fire door at the far end of the hall, a brave couple darting past Cecil and his snake and out of the main door.
“Well,” Cecil says, and his snake hisses amusement.
He closes the fire door so the alarm will shut off, arranges the bloodstones in a neat circle, completes the closing chant, and then pours himself a tall glass of cool pomegranate juice. He has had a very long walk tonight, after all. He helps himself to his fair share of cookies, crunching and swallowing, offering crumbs to his snake, who flickerlicks them off his fingers but seems to prefer the juice. Then he goes to the door, pauses, and turns out the inside light, leaving the one over the door on in case the others come back.
“Cecil, darling, did you have a good time at Scouts?”
“Yes, pia.” Cecil goes into the kitchen, where his mother is baking cookies of her own. “I see differently now.”
She turns away from the stove where she is melting butter and takes a look at him, and then turns back to shut off the flame. “I think we’d better sit and talk about this,” she says, a phrase that means you are not going to bed until you explain exactly what went on in Motherese.
They go into the living room, settling on the couch. Cecil’s snake immediately extends its body over to her, resting its head on her shoulder, but rather than being annoyed, she merely shakes her head and strokes its scales with a fingertip.
Cecil tells his story as briefly as possible.
“My poor baby. Your poor eyes.” She leans over and kisses each eyelid; it’s the only way Cecil can really tell that they’re closed. “But you have the basinu’yu buih.” She uses the phrase even though he hasn’t, and nods when he jumps, startled. “Other things may change in the days to come...”
Cecil can’t quite tell, but he thinks she’s blushing.
“I know about puberty, pia,” he says carefully. “I’ve read books.”
“More than that. Different.” She crosses her arms over her chest and then uncrosses them to pat his hands. “My poor baby,” she says again, but this time it’s with a note of pride. “You must learn to live with this strange blessing.”
Cecil strokes his snake’s head. “They saved my life. I’m living with it already.” He yawns, and it’s entirely unfeigned. “May I go to bed now, please?”
She kisses him goodnight, and Cecil takes himself off to brush his teeth, being especially careful to get all of the sugar off, change into his pajamas, and slip into bed. His snake curls up on the pillow beside him. He can almost see the bold stripes on his pajama sleeves, and resolves then and there to always wear bright things; but not, he thinks, red and black. Somehow he doesn’t think that he will be welcome back into the Scout pack.
Just before he drifts off to sleep, something tingles on his groin. He slides a wary hand down there, wondering if one of the spiders from the cave has somehow hitchhiked home with him, but it’s not a spider and it’s not even anything furry. Instead, his fingertips touch a tiny patch of scales, right in the middle of the stretch of skin just above where his thighs meet.
Smiling to himself, Cecil withdraws his hand. Sometimes when change comes, it comes like the wind, and one can either stand up to it and be battered down, or flow with it, and let the future bring what it may.