It was like looking in a mirror. No, it was exactly like looking in a mirror.
Cecil stood perfectly still, staring at himself sitting at his own desk in the radio station. The Cecil sitting at the desk hadn't noticed him yet; he was chatting on comfortably about wheat and wheat by-products into the microphone.
"Cecil!" Cecil said quickly, but the figure at the desk did not respond. Then, all of a sudden, the world flickered.
The radio station and the desk and the man sitting at it blinked briefly out of existence and then back into solidity, but not before Cecil had glimpsed the Void in between. Cecil did not make a habit of staring at the Void, but the terrible tugging at his soul as he gazed into its formless depths was unmistakable.
Cecil reached out for the edge of the desk, searching for something solid to anchor himself onto, to reassure himself that he was real and corporeal and alive and not yet lost to the Void.
Much to his relief, his hand hit the solid edge of the desk, going so far as to knock over a NVCR mug filled with illegal pens and pencils.
The Cecil sitting at the desk turned abruptly at the sudden clatter, pausing briefly in what he was saying. He stared at the Cecil standing nearby.
"Hello," the Cecil who had knocked over the mug offered weakly. "Do you know why there are two of us?"
The Cecil at the desk quickly switched to an advertisement and slowly pulled off his headphones.
"You're sitting at my desk," the standing Cecil said, with a wave at his double.
"More like you're standing in my studio. But hello, other Cecil. Why have you copied me?"
Standing-Cecil frowned. "No, you copied me."
"You're not real," the Cecil at the desk said, and the world flickered again. This time when he reached for the edge of the desk, he fell right through it, and even the linoleum floor under his terrified hands seemed hazy and indistinct.
"Cecil, help me!" Cecil cried from the floor as he stared into the gaping Void. He felt something warm trickle down his cheek.
The world snapped back without warning a heartbeat later, the linoleum beneath his hands suddenly cold and unyielding. Cecil pressed his palms hard against the pockmarked surface as though doing so would keep it from slipping back into Void. He looked up from the floor to the Cecil still seated in the chair, who was gazing calmly at him, unaffected.
"Ah. The bloodstones. Of course," the Cecil in the chair said thoughtfully, turning away to flick through a few pages on his desk.
"What?" The Cecil on the floor was having trouble keeping his thoughts straight, and he kept seeing double, though in one version of the radio station there was no Cecil seated at the desk.
"You are not real," said the other Cecil, and his voice was devoid of sympathy. "You are a mirror version, living in a mirror Night Vale. You were not meant to last. Look at your face—you are falling apart already."
Cecil raised a shaking hand to his cheek, and his fingertips came away red. He felt further up, and found it was leaking down from his eyes and temples. It didn't hurt, but the sight of blood made his stomach churn all the same.
"What's happening to me?" He felt his voice climb an octave.
"You are a mirror version of me," the other Cecil said patiently. "You were not meant to live. There was a mishap with some bloodstones, but it will all be sorted out soon. You will cease to exist."
"What? I'm not a mirror—I'm you!"
The Cecil at the desk shook his head sadly. "No, you are merely a reflection. I'm afraid there's nothing really to you but light and dusty memories."
"No, no, I'm real! I'm real! You have to believe me!" He lunged for the other Cecil's hands, but his own slipped through them like he wasn't even there. The world flickered to Void and back.
He could feel the blood trickling down his face now, feel it running down the insides of his forearms and leaking out of his cuticles. He felt like he was coming apart at the seams.
He reached up, trying to touch the other Cecil, to implore him to help, but his shaking fingers could not break into the physical plane.
"I'm real, I swear. Help me, Cecil." It couldn't be true; he had to be real. Hadn't he?
The other Cecil shook his head sadly. The advertisement he'd put on earlier was running down to an end. "You are not real; the City Council has said so."
"But I am!" Cecil insisted. "My name is Cecil Gershwin Palmer, I work at Night Vale Community Radio station, I say the news and report the traffic and play the Weather. I'm in love with Carlos the scientist—oh, gods, Carlos! Where is he? He won’t understand—"
Cecil shook his head again, but this time his eyes were sad. "I will look after Carlos, don't worry. You are only a bloodstone-created accident, and you will soon cease to exist."
Cecil opened his mouth to protest further, as if it was his double that held the power over his life, but found his throat choked with blood. The Cecil at the desk turned away and put his headphones back on.
Cecil gasped for air, but his coughing only brought up more blood. He sank down onto the floor in defeat as the linoleum flickered beneath him. When he looked up again, the other Cecil was no longer at the desk.
Instead, blood seeped down the walls, sinking in slow curtains down from the seam where the walls met the ceiling. The dark liquid ran over the switchboards and microphones and dripped into puddles on the floor. Cecil wanted to scream but he had no voice.
The floor shifted and vanished, and then it was only Void beneath him, though the dripping walls continued to surround him. Cecil wiped at his eyes to clear them of the blood welling up in the sockets, and realized his end was very near.
The other Cecil had been right then; of course he had. And he, still Cecil but somehow not, was just an abomination, a mistake, a cracked mirror, and now he was going to be unmade.
But as he stared into the endless Void, that did not quite seem true. He was Cecil, he truly was, even if he was only a mirror. He could see his whole life stretched before him, and he remembered every terrified moment of it. He remembered, and what is a man but the sum of his memories?
Cecil stared into the Void, and realized that the other Cecil had been wrong. He was real, and he was alive, and he wanted to stay that way.
I am real. I am real. Me, and beautiful perfect Carlos, wherever he is, and Old Woman Josie and John Peters—you know, the farmer—and station management and the Glow Cloud (all hail!) and yes, even Steve Carlsberg. Cecil screwed his eyes shut against the sucking Void. I am real. We are all real. We will live.
Even with his eyes tightly closed, he could feel the universe dismantling mirror Night Vale around him, feel his last shields from the full power of the Void crumbling. He knew he didn't have much time. Keeping his last thought—the thought of life, above all else—forefront in his mind, he gathered all of his strength and will and opened his third eye.
The power of the Voice flooded him in an instant, latching onto Cecil's singular thought. A moment later the power of the Voice was echoing out through the Void, relaying Cecil's message, reshaping reality to its host's will. And it made Cecil real, and it made him live.
Then suddenly Cecil was falling—tumbling through the Void—and all around him the fragments of mirror Night Vale were falling too: bits of buildings and creatures and people and legend, all dropping towards an unknown location, the Void rushing past them.
The Void screamed in Cecil's ears and bored through his eyelids, but Cecil refused to open them. His already-open third eye had no choice.
The full force of the Void slammed through his third eye, finding any remnants of the Voice still within him and utterly destroying them. It was like seeing eternity and being crushed by the enormity of it; it was like drowning under the weight of the atmosphere; it was like feeling time reeling past, and being stretched into a million atoms. He could not stand it a moment longer—surely he would be torn apart.
And then the Voice of Night Vale, or perhaps a mirror version of it, reached through the veil into the Void and pulled into reality Cecil and all the falling fragments of Night Vale. Far below them, spread out over the dusty flat sandscape that was suddenly beneath them, was a town.
The Voice pulled and pulled until every salvageable fragment of its original town had been pulled through, and then, with its last ounce of Night Valian strength, closed the gaping hole that led back into the Void. But as the Voice strained to pull the gap closed, it exposed itself to the full anger of the raging, hungry Void.
Then the two realities collided. The little desert town screamed in all the ways a town can scream as mirror Night Vale crashed into it, buildings splicing themselves together and rewriting bits of reality, twisting dimensions to fit the new architecture, works impossible by any scientific standards: the final act of the Voice of Night Vale.
From miles off, a dark, purplish shadow was visible flashing over the entire town. On the edge of town, a wing of the shadow passed directly over the cheery welcome sign and drenched it in blood and dark magic. A moment later the thick sludge burned away, searing bright yellow patterns into the metal sign beneath: Welcome to Desert Bluffs!
On the first day of the new Desert Bluffs, the town was painted red in the (second) most literal sense possible. A sizeable chunk of the incumbent population involuntarily donated their gooey insides to the project, and soon the entire town was drenched in bright red blood and viscera. None of the new citizens of Desert Bluffs quite knew why they found the dripping substance so appealing, though to some it seemed to remind them of their beginnings.
Meanwhile, a presence had settled over the once-cheery town, a presence that burned hot and yellow and made everyone in a five mile radius want to smile.
The smiling presence reached out to the citizens of what had once been mirror Night Vale and showed them visions. Some of the visions were beautiful and dazzling, and others were threatening and filled with glimpses of the tortured Void. And one by one, the new citizens of Desert Bluffs opened their eyes to their visions of the new smiling presence. This opening of eyes was more literal than metaphorical, because when you opened yourself to the smiling presence's vision, you lost your own in return. Each person took a new name and forgot their old lives, and fell under the power of the smiling one.
Cecil, stubborn to the very end, refused to accept the smiling presence's offer to join his fellow citizens in what was advertised as eternal bliss.
"It's not real. They are only visions," Cecil said firmly. He was relaxing in the chair at the Desert Bluffs radio station. It was similar to the one he had worked in for so very long in Night Vale, though every surface was covered in blood and entrails.
At first the smiling presence had sent Cecil visions of a beautiful town, similar to Night Vale except drenched in sunlight instead of shadow. People had been smiling and happy, and he was there too, broadcasting nothing but good news on the radio.
But Cecil knew it was false. He looked around and saw the clinically clean gleam to everything, the false and tacky cheerfulness that hid a darker purpose.
Then he had been shown visions of destruction. He was sent hurtling through the Void and torn limb from limb more times than he could remember, but Cecil wasn't swayed by this either. He had been in the Void and he had stared death in the eye so many times that he could tell when it was fabricated. Or at least that's what he thought very loudly as he pointedly ignored the signals his brain was sending him saying that his spine had been ripped out for the fifth time that day.
It had taken Cecil a couple of days to realize why he could clearly see the lies of the visions while the others could not. He would normally have attributed it to the powers of his third eye, but ever since arriving in Desert Bluffs he had felt only a dull ache where it used to be. No, it was because he knew the smiling presence, knew it from back when it broadcast messages with sound instead of sight. Somehow, the fall through the Void and the exertion of colliding realities had irrevocably twisted the civic-minded Voice of Night Vale into this corrupt, malevolent smiling creature lurking in Desert Bluffs.
Now it was working hard to turn him, the one who had once been its host, but Cecil refused to give an inch. "I know what you are," Cecil said quietly, running a finger along the edge of the microphone, glancing sideways at the lit-up ON AIR sign over the door as he did so. "And I will stop you. You used to be a force for good, Voice. We used to be great friends. And now you are—what? A dictator? A recruiting officer? How the mighty have fallen." His voice was higher than it had been in Night Vale, when the Voice's power had charged every word. Now, he supposed, this was his real voice, his natural voice, the voice he was always meant to have had.
There was no reply to Cecil's jibe, though the former radio host knew the smiling presence was listening, could feel it drawing nearer. "You know, back in Night Vale I used to tell you what to do. Not always...but enough. For persuasion, mostly, coercion. But you did as I said. And I can't help wondering if maybe you still will now."
There was a sudden brightening in the light level outside the window, and Cecil allowed himself a satisfied smile. He felt the smiling presence manifest behind him and swiveled his chair around casually to meet it, switching the broadcast off as he did.
"Hello, Voice," Cecil greeted amicably.
The former Voice of Night Vale had manifested as a tall figure robed in gold and silver. There were two dark hollows where eyes should have been and an unnaturally wide, unwavering, almost predatory smile. A glimmer of white skeletal wings stretched behind him.
"Been a long time since Night Vale," Cecil said easily, gesturing openly with his palms up. "Though I can't say I care for the new look."
"That was not Night Vale," said the figure, and its voice was as flat and expressionless as Cecil's had once been rich and full. "You have never been to Night Vale. And I am not the Voice."
Cecil made a disparaging noise deep in his throat.
"You are not Cecil Palmer. The other man was Cecil Palmer. Yes, I know about that. I was there, after all. He was right, by the way: you are merely a mirror, a reflection."
Cecil shrugged easily, unperturbed. "Then I'm a damn good reflection, aren't I? Because I remember, I remember it all as though it were yesterday, memories of years that I was Cecil, and you were the Voice of Night Vale."
"It was only yesterday," the figure said. "You were never Cecil, and I was never the Voice of Night Vale. We are mistakes, that is all. A bloodstone ritual gone wrong. We were supposed to be killed—you remember what Cecil said—actual Cecil? They wanted us dead, but we lived anyway."
"What of it?" Cecil asked, leaning back in his chair and trying to look unconcerned. "Even if I wasn't Cecil then, I am now."
"No, you are not. You are more than that. Join me, and let us remake this town as we see fit. Let us, perhaps, take our revenge on Night Vale, which sent us into the Void and left us to die."
Cecil shook his head. "And go around burning out people's eyes? I don't think so. And I know what they're saying about you, by the way, and you must too, if the way you're dressed is any indication. They're saying you're some kind of god, but they've got it all wrong, don't they? You're just a twisted Voice with an overinflated ego."
The figure made a move forward and Cecil felt his throat constrict suddenly as invisible fingers tightened around it.
His vision blurred and he reflexively tried to swallow but there was no space to. His hands jumped to his throat, scrabbling around desperately for something to grab onto, but there was nothing. The pressure lessened abruptly, and Cecil rubbed his throat, coughing.
"A vision?" Cecil asked between coughs, trying to massage some feeling back into his throat. It had certainly felt real, realer than the earlier visions, at least.
"No," said the golden figure emotionlessly. "I can do more than that now. The physical plane is open to me."
The invisible bands around Cecil's neck suddenly tightened again in sync with his words. This time the room swayed dizzily as Cecil fought for breath, and the invisible noose only constricted tighter.
"Join me, and take a new name. We shall destroy Night Vale, together."
Cecil squeezed his eyes shut and did his best to shake out a 'no.' He tried to ignore the mounting pressure in his head, focusing instead on the one thing that had kept him grounded through all the nightmarish visions the smiling presence has shown him this far, the one thing he had worked hard to convince the presence he didn't care about. He thought about Carlos.
He imagined the scientist torn to pieces by a force invading Night Vale. As dark blotches formed on the edges of his vision, Cecil pictured Carlos, quietly working his lab, suddenly attacked by smiling townspeople, imagined his terrified cries. Night Vale could not be invaded, he would not allow it; if it was, Carlos would be killed—perfect, beautiful Carlos, truly irreplaceable: the only one in the world.
All of a sudden, the pressure around his neck vanished and Cecil pitched forward, wheezing. He felt his throat constrict again, this time of its own accord. He tried to cough, but it stuck in his throat and only made his eyes and throat burn. He felt himself topple onto the floor, still struggling to take a breath.
He managed a shallow wheeze that made his head throb, and rolled onto his side, gasping like a fish out of water. He looked blearily up at the ghostly winged figure, and let out a surprised wheeze.
On his knees in front of the smiling presence was Carlos.
"When we mirrored, Carlos did not," the smiling presence said tonelessly, "because he is an outsider and not from Night Vale. You know this; you know there was only ever one."
"Cecil?" That was Carlos, sounding equally surprised and horrified, glancing hurriedly around him in confusion.
Cecil wheezed something that might have been "Carlos!" but equally might have been "Run!" and descended into broken coughing, fingers scrabbling uselessly at his collar.
Carlos tried to move forward to help, but an invisible force yanked him back and held him there.
"Carlos here was minding his own business back in Night Vale—the real Night Vale—when you mentioned him. In your mind, I mean. I was once a part of you, Cecil; I know your thoughts. And then it was just the small matter of finding Carlos and zapping him here. I simply could not bring myself to watch you die without letting you at least see your beloved one last time."
Cecil tried to rise to his feet, but he hadn't made it as far as his elbows before an invisible force slammed him back to the floor, wheezing and coughing up blood.
"Stop it! Let him go; it's me you want," said Carlos, his voice strained yet certain, looking from Cecil to the winged figure behind him.
"You're really not, I'm afraid," said the smiling presence. "You see, Cecil here is beloved by the citizenry of this sad little town. He is a leader, though he would not admit it, and he knows how to manipulate them through the radio. You—you are just a meddlesome scientist who's bound to try and spoil my plans."
"No, no," Carlos said quickly. "I would never! And—" He was abruptly cut off with a startled gurgle as, without warning, a bright red line slashed across his neck. For a long moment he just knelt there, still trying to speak, the red liquid sliding down his throat in waves. Then he finally stopped trying to speak, his face registering shock as he tumbled over to join Cecil on the floor. Carlos’ hands clutched at his neck, trying desperately to staunch the bleeding, but there was nothing that could be done.
"Carlos!" Cecil wheezed, horrified, trying to pull himself over to the scientist. He found his way blocked by an invisible barrier and could only watch, petrified, as Carlos spasmed on the floor, blood spilling into a huge puddle around him far faster than seemed possible, the red liquid spreading across the linoleum and seeping into his pristine white lab coat.
"Throats are such interesting things, I always thought," said what had once been a Voice, though there was still no inflection in the words.
The scientist's terrified eyes met Cecil's, and it seemed they conveyed a world of emotion: fear, sorrow, and maybe something like regret. A moment later they focused on something through Cecil, and Carlos’ shoulders slumped as his head dropped to the floor and he fell still.
Cecil stared at him, too shocked to move, barely able to continue taking his own ragged wheezing breaths. It felt like his heart had been ripped out through his chest.
"And you're probably thinking this is a trick—an illusion like all the others, but let me assure you it is not."
Cecil felt the invisible force holding him back lift, and he crawled miserably along the floor to where Carlos lay.
He skirted the pool of blood and instead ran a hand through Carlos' perfect, perfect hair, tangling his fingers in the soft locks. He felt Carlos' cheek with the back of his hand, and it was already cooling to the touch. He carefully closed the scientist's eyes. His hand was shaking.
"Join me, and you will forget," said the white figure, extending a hand.
Cecil gave a ragged sob and looked up blearily, one hand still tangled in Carlos' perfect hair. He wanted to say no, to defy the Smiling God, but all the fight had gone out of him. He had resisted for Carlos, knowing that if Night Vale was taken the scientist would surely be killed, but here was Carlos, bleeding out on the linoleum floor of the Desert Bluffs radio station.
He looked back down at Carlos’ body and stroked his hand over the scientist's hair one last time. There was blood already seeping into his soft curls, dark and final. He took a deep, scratchy breath.
Cecil looked up at the smiling figure, and felt a sudden sense of serenity overcome him. He felt it washing over all the knotted emotions deep at his core, running over them like oil over stone.
A bright light blossomed inside him, spreading out like petals to envelop his entire soul. He felt himself relaxing involuntarily into the touch, desperately seeking the warmth it radiated. Cecil was still trying to warm his freezing soul when the brightness hardened. It was still bright and smiling, but now it constricted around him like nettles. Golden tendrils bored mercilessly into the aching hollows of his soul, ripping it into pieces before shredding each fragment individually.
Cecil felt himself falling apart, felt memories torn from him and mangled, crushed by the golden thorns: excitement at getting his job at the radio station, boiling anger at Steve Carlsberg, the shaking fear of re-education, pride when Janice won the local mandated spelling bee, a warm fuzzy feeling when he first spoke to Carlos and then again later when he'd visited the station and had blushed beet red before he had managed to reach the studio door, a terrible heart-rending horror when that red slash had ripped across perfect Carlos' throat, sending him toppling forward, that surprised look still on his face as his eyes met Cecil's... And then it was gone. He was empty. He was nothing and no one, and not a single soul thought otherwise.
Then the terrible golden thorns clenched tighter, and now he knew only happiness. Joy and satisfaction and loyalty poured into him, but it was cold and tacky, like gold paint when there should have been gold plate. More and more poured in, and it seemed the great gaping hole within him would never be filled, so little of his own soul was left. At the same time, a different sort of heat tore at his eyes.
And then he was filled to the brim with the Smiling God, and he felt the golden thorns pull themselves away and retreat, leaving a freezing yellow mass in their wake, a sculptor's impression of a soul, as cold and lifeless as the metal from which it was wrought.
The man sitting on the floor was still for a long moment before lifting his head slowly. There were fresh tear tracks down his cheeks, leading from dark hollows where eyes should have been, but it was a smile that slid over his face.
The man sat up taller, feeling a warmth glowing inside him as the interior of the radio station swam into view. Everything was tinged yellow, and cheerfulness seemed draped over everything like a flag, or perhaps a death shroud. He found he was sitting on the floor and raised himself up and to his feet. There was a faint throbbing around the region of his throat, but it was of no consequence. There was a dark, delicate-skinned man lying in a pool of blood on the floor at his feet, but that too was of no consequence. His eyes fell on the radio and he pulled himself over to the chair.
He leaned in towards the microphone and licked his lips, flipping on the broadcast switch as he did so. "Good morning, Desert Bluffs," he said smoothly. A huge grin slid over his face, pushing aside tears he didn't remember shedding. "This is your friendly radio broadcaster, here to remind you to work hard, smile broadly, and hug all the strangers you meet. Wishing you all the happiness that can be bestowed by our Smiling God, this is your friendly community radio broadcaster, Kevin Free."
The radio host beamed in delight when he identified the oaky tones emanating from his cell phone as those of the scientist. "Carlos!"
"Yeah, it's me. Umm... someone who looked just like me just appeared in my lab...?" Carlos' voice was a little shaky.
"Oh, really?" Cecil winced immediately and could have smacked himself. 'Oh really' was about as clichéd as it got. And besides, Carlos wanted scientific answers, not tacky one-liners from an unscientific radio host.
"Yes. Um. He...I was running him through some tests—he agreed, said it was very scientific—but he kept sort of...disappearing, and, he just, uh, starting bleeding all over and...he sort of, and then...God, Cecil, did I just watch myself die?"
"Oh, no no no Carlos!” Cecil assured him quickly. “Don't worry; that was just a mirror version of you. I should have mentioned it earlier; a bloodstone ritual went wrong last week, and a mirror version of Night Vale was created. I didn't think you'd have a mirror, though, 'cause you're not from here...at any rate, they got the mix with the bloodstones all worked out, so, hey, no harm, no foul."
There was a pause at the other end of the line. "Okay, then. If you say so. Um, thank you, Cecil, for...helping me out with understanding this strange scientific phenomenon."
"It's more dark magic than science, but I am always glad to help out our town's most notable scientist."
There was a short pause that Cecil prayed was less awkward than it seemed to him, and then a quiet, oaky chuckle from the other end of the line.
"Um, okay," was all Carlos eventually said, though his voice sounded a little brighter than before, like he was smiling.
Cecil hesitated to respond, not wanting to be the one to discuss hanging up, and wondering how to best bring up dinner plans while Carlos appeared to be in a good mood.
"Well," said Carlos at last, and Cecil berated himself for not springing on the opportunity to at least mention a nice brunch, maybe. "I guess I'll be, um, seeing you around, then."
"I guess." Cecil tried to keep his voice neutral, though wasn't sure if he had succeeded in crushing the delight from it.
"Okay." Carlos paused again, and this time for sure Cecil thought it was awkward. "I'm gonna hang up now."
Another pause. "Okay, bye."
The phone beeped to indicate the call had been ended, and Cecil flopped back into his chair, hugging his phone to his chest and sighing noisily, a huge silly smile on his face.
Carlos had called him!