There had been a door in the back of the room for as long as it had existed. Cecil had never opened it, nor had he paid it any mind. He couldn't feel what was on the other side, which unnerved him slightly, but he imagined it was just a door to somewhere else. Maybe an emergency exit, or perhaps a door meant for the dark beings with whom City Council had made a pact. After a few decades, like most irrelevant details, he stopped registering its appearance. It wasn't like he didn't see it anymore, it was just that he didn't notice it anymore.
Which meant, of course, that Carlos did.
"Do you keep anything in that closet? You never use it," he said, one day, casually, as if it wasn't a thing.
But it was a thing, because Cecil had personally gone through every closet in the station and sealed them off, smoothing out the small creases and pockets of spatial fabric that created such spaces. Closets tended to bring guests, and while he didn't mind, Station Management did. Something about opening closets to find a neatly-arrayed line of coats set them off, and since they were summoned and thus bound there, Cecil had ceded them the station. It was still a part of him, naturally, but he more-or-less sublet it to Management. It was, he thought, much like giving someone else control over his left ringfinger, so it was theirs while still being his. It didn't much affect him, and he could take it back if he ever needed it.
"There aren't any closets in the station," he said, carding long, fine fingers through Carlos' hair. Cecil examined the building just in case something had folded that he hadn't noticed. With the finger analogy, it was like he was temporarily slicing the affected digit open to check on its internal functions. There was nothing out of the ordinary. "No closets," he added, now certain, "at all."
Carlos sat up, provoking a soft whine. He was warm, and solid, and the shape of his soul was unfamiliar and unique, and Cecil adored when they could touch directly (to the point where Cecil once suggested that, were they busy, Carlos find an unpaved area and stand there barefoot, which was much the same thing; he'd declined because he wasn't a fan of dust or dirt and had only just accepted that contact with Cecil's speaking body inevitably meant a fine layer of dust coating his skin afterwards). "There's a door," he said, "behind your desk. There isn't a corresponding one in the archives, so I thought..."
"Oh," said Cecil. "No." He shook his head. "I'm not sure where it goes." One of the things Cecil feared most was losing Carlos; he knew humans liked change, and that he himself rarely changed; he also knew that outsiders almost never made lives in Night Vale; and then there was the unavoidable fact that there were many places Carlos could go where Cecil couldn't follow. He was constantly aware that humans only lived for so long, and that they were delicate, and while there were ways to make Carlos' existence more permanent, Cecil emphatically did not want to trap him. "It doesn't go to another part of me, anyway."
But Carlos perked up and Cecil's heart fell because he'd always ignored the slightly bad feeling the door gave him and the thought of Carlos looking into, let alone going through, made his heart stop for a second. The electricity across town faltered, dying just long enough to be notable before flickering back to life. Carlos looked from the table lamp to Cecil, whose face was more blank than usual and whose hands were white-knuckled fists in his lap.
"Please don't open that door," Cecil whispered. "Please, please don't."
Carlos was in the middle of testing the physics of some of Night Vale's four-dimensional springs. There was an abundance of doors with 4D spring mechanisms piled up behind the unsuspicious house that Carlos suspected was the base of the Sheriff's Secret Police, especially once he learned that the doors were illegal for safety reasons—five-dimensional springs were much more effective, with reviews indicating that they saved two out of every five people from tumbleweeds, spectres, and javalinas, a definite improvement from the one-and-a-quarter out of five saved by 4D spring doors. He'd more-or-less secured permission from the person wearing a gas mask who apparently lived in that house and brought several back to the lab.
There was absolutely nothing that indicated that the springs had anything to do with the fourth dimension in the least, but they didn't quite work in the same way as "normal" springs (the ones brought in from Outside). They did not consistently store and release kinetic energy, leaving Carlos and a few physicists struggling to make a constant for something that was not a constant, because the math indicated that momentum was not quite the same in Night Vale as anywhere else. There was a force similar to friction but yet-unidentified at work and—
The lights faltered, flickering a few times before losing power entirely. Carlos glanced up at the ceiling, hoping it was a temporary moment of darkness (though that wasn't scheduled until next Tuesday). A gradual rumbling reached the site, followed by powerful quakes. Though he was no seismologist, Carlos could recognize that these tremblors weren't the distinctive P or S waves of a typical earthquake. Besides, Night Vale was never situated anywhere near enough a fault line for an earthquake of this magnitude. The lights began to flicker again, making a counterpoint to the shaking ground in the rhythm of a fast, almost panicked, heartbeat.
Ignoring his co-workers, who were already crouched under tables with their heads covered, and safety protocol, Carlos threw off his hard hat, gloves, and goggles as he rushed out the door.
Things were much worse outside.
The sky was blanketed with heavy clouds with an eerie red-violet glow to them. Rain dumped from above, as heavy as hailstones but not quite solid and slightly salty. Gales swept unsuspecting civilians and signs off their feet, the pressure of the storm forcing them low to the ground. The few unlucky enough to remain standing were then threatened with white lances of lightning that struck in time with a growing roar of thunder. Carlos, already soaked through with hair plastered to his face and neck, narrowly dodged a falling traffic light. Someone shouted at him from a stalled squad car, but he paid them no mind. He knew the town wouldn't hurt him even if it tried.
There it was—just at the junction of Oak Street and Bleemth Avenue this time—the humble white-rendered adobe of the Community Radio Broadcast Center. Even from a block and a half away, Carlos saw that every window on the front side of the building was opaque, full of a slithering and inky darkness that blocked out all light. A window shattered and, as the shards of glass attempted to inch away, tendrils of the dark fog seeped outward, behaving much like the gas coming off of dry ice. He closed his eyes and ran directly at the doorway, shoving it open with his shoulder and entering into the lobby-like reception room.
Even with its usual overly-cozy couch cushions firmly set in their usual spots, the room looked much more ominous. The thick miasma crawled up the walls and oozed across the floor. It felt foreboding—like the smell of burnt ozone before rain—and protective—like a wall of thorns. Wisps of smoke curled around his ankles, freezing hot and buzzing like hostile static, leaving his feet numb in their wake and slowing his movement. More smoke caught on his lab coat as the inferno coalesced inside of the recording room—which was also Cecil's office. Carlos looked around and thought it was empty—then his eyes came upon the source, crouched beneath the desk with his knees pressed to his chest, shaking even more violently than the ground. Now within Cecil's little bubble and safe from the chaos currently tearing papers off the walls, Carlos dropped to his knees and crawl-approached Cecil. He wrapped a warm arm around those quivering shoulders. Cecil curled around him reactively, Carlos' neck and shoulder making the perfect spot to hide his face. This time, it was Carlos who found his hand in Cecil's hair, softly pulling through little knots in fine stands of silvery white.
Cecil's—and, resultantly, the ground's—quaking slowly came to a stop over the next few minutes. He still shivered a little bit, breathing hard and gripping Carlos like a lifeline. Carlos' shoulder and neck were uncomfortably wet from Cecil's tears. Rain continued to patter outside the station, but the intensity eased off until it was a regular storm and not a hard shower. With a sharp pop and a gasp, the radios fell silent once more. Buildings resettled, some less gracefully than others, and electrical power buzzed back to full strength. The world seemed to let out a sigh. Carlos did not stop stroking Cecil's hair, but he did glance up and look around. No dust fell from the ceiling and the walls looked unharmed. A growling sense of unease echoed from down the hall, though, making him consider Management. Despite an attempt to pick him up, Cecil remained crouched on the ground, now looking rather existentially anemic—faded at the edges, like an old photograph, and colorless toward the middle. Carlos relented and somewhat scooped the unwieldiness of Cecil's body. He found himself wondering at how light Cecil seemed for being everywhere.
Cecil said nothing, staring into the distance without blinking, statue-still. A sense of unreality hung in the air, mingled with the taste of waiting and something like heavy grief or mourning. Fear still struck its discordant note somewhere just out of sight, prickling up spines like icy spiders.
"Don't—" Carlos almost jumped, the statement was so sudden. "Don't let them do that to me," Cecil said, voice fading to a whisper. He shook his head and hid his eyes again. "Please. Please don't let that happen to me," he continued, voice muffled.
Carlos stopped what he was doing to sit on the couch beside Cecil. He offered the throw blanket again. This time, Cecil didn't shrug it off. "What happened?" It was the first thing he'd said since the station, and the sound came out like the walls were trying to eat it, or like there was cotton in his ears. Carlos was almost floating as though he were submerged in still, cloudy water.
"Someone turned him inside out," Cecil said. "He was just like me and someone went and— and— they went and they bled him dry." He shivered and the world shivered with him, objects on shelves rattling for a moment. "I could see it," he whispered, "his skin was cracking open because there was nothing underneath it anymore."
Carlos pressed a hand to Cecil's cheek, noting with concern how the skin there (which he couldn't really see) was significantly warmer than room temperature. "Are you— can you get sick?"
"Carlos," he said, half in a whine. Cecil leaned away from the arm of the couch, falling in slow motion until he lay with his head on Carlos' thigh. "Will you stay with me?"
Cecil fidgeted a little, trying to get comfortable while Carlos sat there, one hand in his hair. Eventually, his breathing evened out and the tension drained from his body. Carlos never took his eyes off Cecil, idly wondering what places dreamed about—or if they dreamed at all. He hadn't even been sure that Cecil ever slept until now. Maybe, somewhere out in the vast desert that was his boyfriend, there was a little flock of sheep jumping over a fence one at a time; maybe those dreams were much deeper, though, and darker. Cecil had alluded to a Void before—was that where he went when he was asleep?
Carlos didn't even notice that he'd begun to nod off until he felt something novel press against his skin. It wasn't wholly unfamiliar, but in his state of half-wakeness, he couldn't place where he'd felt it. Something very solid, buzzing like static and freezing hot, moving, coiling like a snake around his upper arm. He glanced over and nearly jumped out of his skin at the sight of what appeared to be animate black ink curled around him. There was a mild shine to the slick surface with more of a tinge than a glow coming off it. The skin making direct contact with it went numb and prickly— and Carlos remembered where he'd encountered it; back in the station. It wasn't unlike the dark fog that emanated from the recording room while Cecil was still in acute distress. But the ground wasn't shaking, and while Carlos could hear the soft sound of falling rain, there was no thunder. He looked down the length of the inky snake and wasn't entirely surprised to discover that it led back to Cecil. Poking out from under the blanket, it dipped under its own weight before reaching Carlos. Being careful not to move too quickly, Carlos gently lifted the edge of the throw blanket. He wasn't quite sure what he expected to see, but it wasn't what was actually there.
It looked like Cecil's skin had been unzipped along his spine from a point a few inches below his neck—just below what appeared to be a great, closed eye—to the small of his back. In the midst of the "zipper," forming a rough triangle shape, was a patch of—it looked like black ink had spilled on Cecil's skin. But from it came the appendage—Carlos realized it was, more or less, a tentacle—like an extension of the darkness.
He covered Cecil with the blanket once more and returned his hand to Cecil's hair. His skin was acclimating to the strange sensory experience of the tentacle. The buzz was much softer now than it had been before, no longer hostile. It tingled in a way that didn't quite itch and didn't quite tickle, more akin to very mild pins-and-needles than anything else. Carlos minded much less than he'd expected, but he guessed that after the eyes, the emotionally chaotic weather, and the general plethora of weird shit he'd seen since coming to Night Vale... Cecil having tentacles didn't even make it into the top ten strangest things he'd encountered that week. He had questions, certainly, but they could wait. Cecil was breathing more easily than he had in hours and Carlos wasn't keen on destroying this moment.
So, even as another, smaller tentacle twined around his wrist and into his palm, Carlos fell asleep.
The door stood there, silently judging. He could feel its utter contempt for him. It was not part of him, and the door's quiet antipathy suggested that it was glad for that.
Cecil found himself continually distracted from his efforts to re-sort various paperwork. Someone had let out a Disembodied Breeze, and it moved into the filing room. The Breeze had taken a malevolent delight in shuffling everything around. While it would cause more chaos once he was finished, staying on top of the current mess meant preventing further damage. He'd forbidden the interns from accessing the filing room, partially because Disembodied Breezes were experts at paper cuts and partially because he did not want it becoming a Disembodied Gust or, heavens forbid, a Disembodied Gale which could knock down the walls. Station Management would not be happy and several more people than usual would die.
Yet the door stood there, peeking out from behind a tall, dusty filing cabinet, making fun of Cecil. There he was, a big, bad town and he was afraid of one little door.
Cecil dropped the sheet of meaningless numbers and looked over his shoulder at the door. Sensing the presence of the Disembodied Breeze, he used a heavy, old book to pin down the papers. He sent a withering glance to the corner where the wires swung for no evident reason before standing and approaching the door. Maybe, he reasoned. Maybe he was wrong about the whole thing? It could have just been a normal, random, pointless door that wasn't part of Cecil for a good reason. It would be nice, he reasoned, to have a closet outside the purview of Management. There was a chance that this was his supply closet, a pocket dimension that wouldn't bother Management with guests. He was overreacting, clearly.
Totally confident in his newfound optimism, Cecil opened the door before he lost the nerve. Even the Disembodied Breeze in the corner fell silent, holding its breath, while the door swung open with a long and cacophonous creak.
On the other side was a mirror.
It was an undecorated mirror, just a sheet of reflective glass that was flush against whatever surface stood behind it. Cecil looked at his reflection and tilted his head slightly. He'd never actually seen himself in a mirror before.
It would be incorrect to say that Cecil disliked mirrors; he didn't feel any particular way about them. Mirrors just didn't like Cecil. They saw both of his bodies, but could only reflect one, and neither was more important than the other. The mirrors would war internally over which reflection to show before shattering from the stress of the choice. This one, however, did not. It simply showed the smaller of his forms.
As Cecil watched his own image, its lips began to move, twitching upward in a smile. While it wasn't particularly uncommon for one's reflection to move by itself, this smile was more terrible than Cecil could ever imagine crossing his face. It continued past the corners of his lips, unzipping the skin of his face and beginning to peel it back. Cecil shut his eyes and prayed that this was a trick of the light, or that the mirror would catch on and drop its shenanigans.
When he opened them again, things were that much worse.
The eyes on his reflection opened alongside his actual eyes, but the lids parted without revealing eyes. Instead of six eyes and one mouth on his face, the reflection had *seven* mouths, all smiling that horrible smile.
Cecil recoiled from the mirror, but his reflection only seemed to step closer. Things were beginning to fall apart. Like fissures that open over drained groundwater, the reflection's skin was crumbling along its veins. Its wrists bruised and bloodied as shining, burning gold chains appeared around them. It mimicked Cecil's headtilt, head falling to its shoulder like a cut marionette. Everywhere visible eyes showed on Cecil's skin, sharp and grinning mouths gaped on the reflection. Parts of it were flickering like a bad lightbulb, and still others distorted as they came into focus. The reflection was—
The worst of it was when Cecil realized he wasn't looking at a reflection.
On the other side of the door was someone— somewhere else, similar in appearance to Cecil, but half-dead and mutilated. The hollow emptiness of the other man's mouths echoed loudly in Cecil's ears. And the silence—oh, gods, the silence. It threatened to drown him. Some places were quiet, certainly, but no place was ever meant to be totally silent. The stench of overwhelming blood, of shredded flesh, of gore and viscera, filled the room through the doorway. Despite his overall state of decay, his hair was perfectly coiffed and sunny where Cecil's was like shaggy moonlight. A hand, stripped to just tendon and bone but still with a smiling mouth on its back, reached out to Cecil. Barely able to maintain a thought that wasn't abject horror or sympathetic pain, Cecil scrambled further back. Finding his arms uselessly limp with terror, he reached out of the Void to slam shut the door. He fell back immediately and scrambled for his desk, sitting on the other side of it with his knees pulled up to his chest, hiding his face.
Cecil shook with anxiety and overwhelming fear, hard enough that he knew he was causing structural damage. The cabinet by the door fell over with a crash, followed by loud thumps and accompanying shatters in other rooms. His hands flexed in and out of fists as a barrage of tall storm clouds encroached upon the open sky. They dropped sporadic rain as he sobbed between gasps. The gusts of wind increased to the tempo of his hyperventilation. Cecil was so close to passing out. Lights flickered unevenly like a racing heartbeat, against the rhythm of the earthquake, and, regardless of power, radios came to life blaring large volumes of harsh static like electric screaming.
He was drowning. Inside his mind, the currents were rushing over his head and something was pulling him into the depths. And Cecil generally liked depths, but these were large empty canyons full of lost things subsumed by the dark. There was no longer a surface, a clean break between water and air, but a hard ceiling of ice that didn't give even when he scratched at it until his nails bled. The ocean floor rushed up at him as he fought for air. All he could see was cracked skin and chapped lips splitting and bleeding into smiles— a voice that's a Voice, but speaking nothing but silence— bloodied chains, electric convulsions, leashes—
The sound of the door—not the Door, but the normal door into the studio—breaking open was the only thing that could take him out of the darkness. The voice he heard, the soul he felt, was the first breath of air after a long time underwater. Warm arms closed around his shoulders and Cecil— was still panicking, but he no longer had to fight for air, which was a definite improvement.
But the dark abyss still beckoned, the bleeding ground and deep fissures continued to sink, and the very real possibility that what he saw could have been him wouldn't leave his mind.
Though their electric yellow hazmat suits and the high desert sun did nothing to blend them into the environment, two figures made their way, unnoticed, across the boundary to the edge of the desert that consisted of the Greater Night Vale Municipal District. Nobody saw them as they hammered stakes into the ground, nor as they set up several tripods holding complicated instruments.
It had begun.