Old Woman Josie was right.
No one had seen the sun in three days. The sky was still the right forecast color, but there were clouds blocking everything except the void, which they never succeeded in blocking. They weren’t rain clouds – Cecil was told those were grey – but late at night, when he was up studying manuals and making careful ritual calculations or practicing chants, he thought he could hear thunder, or see the occasional flash of lightening.
Tension was in the air even without the infrequent rumbling. People complained that their radios weren’t working and wouldn’t turn all the way up, as if the station broadcast signal had grown weaker. There was a weird circle of clouds, white with purple streaks, that seemed to hover above the station, moving as clouds tended to move but always finding their way back to the same place. Everyone listened to the news as if they were under attack even though it was all fairly uneventful stuff – bake sales and fundraisers and a new sewing club that only required the smallest blood sacrifice as an entrance fee. Al’s voice still came in clearly even if the signal didn’t. He needed Cecil and Pam’s assistance to get to and from the station, but he still wrote his own notes, received his own messengers, and took calls on the station line. The fundamental work for him did not stop and they knew enough to not try to stop him.
Change was coming. The air was thick with the uncertainty of it. Cecil went out to the scrublands, as far from the station as he could get, to practice the elements of rituals he would be needing. He chalked pentagrams, killed a lot of animals (mostly chickens, though the grocer was giving him weird looks), and cut himself in a lot of strange places to get blood flowing, because it really mattered if it came from your palm or your earlobe or your tongue. He had the ritual robe of the station, black with a hood and a purple NVCR badge over the chest.
When he returned, he found all of the hooded figures frozen in place. As if they could do nothing but wait. Even the ones in the Cat Habitat were standing still, their cloaks waving in the angry winds that always seemed to be blowing now, kicking up red sand that came from nowhere.
He looked up and could not see stars, but he knew they were aligning. He did not have much time. He biked back to his apartment to gather supplies, and returned to the station just in time to see it blink out of existence.
Algonquin’s broadcast had not stopped.
It was hard to tell if it was pre-recorded or the news was just that mundane. He wasn’t reporting on the shifting colors in the sky, or the winds that battered at even the sturdiest trailers, or that there was an empty lot where the radio station had been. The people of Night Vale hid in their homes, their radios turned up high and circled around.
Pam was waiting for him there. Cecil didn’t know why exactly; she wasn’t needed for this part. It would be impossible for her to continue. But she had chalk, and together they drew the glyphs in a picture of a doorway. They cut their hands and bleed into the circle together and they chanted together.
And then she hugged him, something he’d never expected her to do. He knew she felt the same way. She adjusted his soft meat crown – nothing official, as it was technically illegal to own one, so it was just sausages and very rare hamburger bits that were already drying up in the hot desert winds of twilight.
“If you tell anyone I did that, I’ll kill you.”
“You do keep saying that.”
They shook hands because this was a goodbye. Cecil would not be returning the way he had come. He turned to the glyphs, focusing his chanting with raised hands, palms having the sky. He knew the right gestures and words and how to pronounce them in succession. The world around him swirled so he no longer saw Pam, or the empty lot in front of him, or the house behind him because they were going too fast, so fast that they appeared like a solid object all around him and he could only see the lights of the glowing glyphs. He called them up, and they rose to reform in front of him as a door – the door – which was cool to the touch and shimmered as he pushed it open.
He entered the station made of hewn stone, with inward-turning walls of the ziggurat-shaped building. Ancient bas reliefs pictured the journey of Management’s ancestors, beginning with the painted sphere of Yuggoth and spreading out in all directions.
Above him, Al was still broadcasting. There was no booth, just the chair, table, and microphone, and there was no ceiling between them, as if Al was in a room of perfectly polished glass so clear it was invisible.
The only item on Cecil’s level was the station’s bloodstone circle, with all of the stones a heaving, breathing red, sucking in air and then releasing color around the altar of the same stone of the ground. To the side of altar there were instruments – a silver water jug, a jar of freshly-ground paint, and an obsidian dagger.
Cecil washed his hands and feet with the water from the silver jug which never depleted however much he poured. He left the dagger alone and dipped his finger into the paint, a mix of crushed red stone and glue made from human and otherworldly skin. On the altar he drew the elder signs, calling on powers greater than his own, and the ground shifted. He could not tell if he was rising or if Al was sinking, but they came together on the same plane and the same phase of existence above the circle of runes long carved into the stone floor.
Al was facing nothing, speaking into that gleaming microphone connected to no object, which shimmered slightly when he spoke. It was made of silver from a key Randolph Carter melted down when he created the station.
“And now, if I may, I’d like to get personal for a minute,” Al continued. “Loyal listeners, I’ve thought quite a lot about what I would say at this moment. At first a lot of sentimental ideas came to me, but I dismissed them. The truth is I’ve been speaking to you for a long time. I have been talking and you have been listening and I have come to a point where I have no more words left in me. I am not without ideas and interests. I do look forward to some things that have not yet happened and can reflect on things that have. But for our conversation, the intimate one between me and you that I think until this moment I have never fully appreciated, the hour has grown late and we are both tired. If you don’t mind, I would like from now on to be silent. But first ... the weather.”
It was not weather like Cecil had ever heard. It was more motion than sound. He smelled it and tasted it before he heard it. Its hands were all over him, hugging him and holding him like a parent trying to comfort a small child.
Al swiveled around in his chair and when he stood, it disappeared, as did his headphones and the desk. There was just the microphone, temporarily muted in existence, and them.
The dagger was in Cecil’s hands, but he hesitated.
“Cecil.” Al was not speaking in the Voice. Nothing was propping him up anymore. He looked and sounded ragged. “You swore.”
Cecil’s knuckles tightened so hard around the harsh handle that it hurt and still he hesitated. “I can’t.”
“Cecil, I love you. If you think you need forgiveness, then I will grant it. But you don’t. You can do this.” At Cecil’s further hesitation he smiled and said, “We’ll do it together.”
They turned to the altar. The humming of the bloodstones was incessant and seemed to be in time with Al’s heavy breathing. He took Cecil’s free hand and they recited together, Al strong at first and Cecil weak before he caught up and Al faded, so the strong became the weak became the strong:
“O friend and companion of night,
Thou who rejoicest in the baying of dogs
And spilt blood,
Who wanderest in the midst of shades among the tombs,
Who longest for blood and bringest terror to mortals,
Look favorably on our sacrifice!”
Over the course of the chant, words Cecil had never spoken quite so loudly, his blood rushed to his face and his ears were pounding, and he barely felt his hands. It was only a puny earth god they were calling to, an avatar of greater things, but something surged within him and he turned, flailing, and drove the dagger deep into Algonquin’s flesh. It sliced like butter that was growing warmer, each frenzied stroke easier than the last because of Cecil’s increased strength, and he was so hungry.
Al was big but his heart was a human heart as his body was once a human body, so it was smaller than Cecil expected and its beat was like a repetitive shutter as Cecil pulled it free of bone and vein and flesh and held it above the altar. It had a slight twitch remaining when he cut away the arteries and brought the muscle between his teeth. It was chewy and strong, and he could taste the life in it that was now entirely gone from Al’s body. There were tremors in his mouth and it was not precisely a good feeling, but he chewed and swallowed and almost choked but it went down, all of it, into his stomach.
“Iä! Shub-Niggurath!” he screamed, and it was a real scream, a primal cry as the blood stones began to dim, exhausted. “Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fhtagn!”
He almost had time to wonder if things had gone wrong, and his sacrifice had not been accepted, but he was thinking with not one mind but two, then three, then four, and his brain grew as he grew, his body unfurling in the growing hole in the ceiling. When his head cleared the radio tower entirely his arms were long enough to reach down and touch the earth outside the station, and the bits of sand were so small and so soft to him, almost as if they had a silky consistency. He petted the streets, the buildings, and Night Vale itself, which he saw clearly with all three eyes open. It was breathing every so slightly, causing the buildings to shake and it would stretch its legs and the earth would rumble like a quake. The soul was neither good nor bad. It gave and it took away, a loyal servant to its original designer, the creator of the real Night Vale, the avatar of the original voice to whom he was now connected, Randolph Carter. Cecil was no longer Cecil – he was Randolph, and he always had been. He was not peeling back a false identity, only the layers of unreality that led him to believe there was any difference between other sentient beings, their souls eternal and unchanging. He petted Night Vale and it cooed. The only angry hiss came from Station Management. He could see the bugs in their cage, the fungal-like Mi-Go, children of Yuggoth and exiles here in the dusty desert planes, and he could see this all because he was beyond them now. He could see the deal Randolph Carter made with them because he made it as well.
He stretched and the city became smaller until it was just an indistinguishable speck in the dotted landscape and Cecil was free of all barriers. He rose past the tiered heavens and their angels to the First Gate, where he spoke the words of power and passed through fundamentally changed but still focused. His sense of self drifted away like an especially soft and thin cocoon that could not withstand the speed of his mental climb. He was beyond using his eyes and he saw in all directions beyond the cardinal four and their associated colors.
It was soothingly quiet in space. The planet’s presence did make a dim sound to remind him of its presence, and from space the oceans were bluer and colors of the land were brighter and throbbing, full of creatures he was not distinct from now that the veil between him and them was rent. He would have stayed there for some time – possibly eternity – and been satisfied in the glory of what he had called his home planet when he had been small and flesh-based, but he traveled on to rectangular structures that resembled stone and hovered above space, until he was at last before the Ultimate Gate. It was some distance away still, and he could not make his way alone, but he was not alone. Algonquin – the real Algonquin, one he had never comprehended before – was beside him, as was Randolph even though Cecil was both of them and the distance between them illusory.
They met 'Umr at-Tawil, who wore a yellow veil over his hideous face and demanded tributes and treasures beyond giving until Cecil saw him as the extension of who he truly was and called him by his name. “Father.”
Even when there was no separation between planes of being, and Cecil’s edges grew soft and fell away and he stood before a mass of every creature to have lived and living and would live, and he realized how time was as illusory as anything else, and there was no past, present, or future above the cosmos, a tiny thread of him was still there, and it reached out and touched a tiny thread of that mass that guarded the Ultimate Gate and said, “Father” and this relationship, which he had never known before but fully understood now, able to see the moment of his conception to his form now his forms later, and the mass acknowledged him and 'Umr at-Tawil taught him the signs he needed and the symbols to return because he could not stay. He split himself into two – one not-Cecil would travel through the Ultimate Gate and rest on his throne with the other guardians and travelers who had earned it, all knowledge having been explored and known, and one not-Cecil would return to earth, incomplete enough to grasp the concept of earth without seeing through it. One became a wise elder and the other remained a child, and this one his father did not speak to, because if he did this Cecil would fly out of existence in a thousand directions of four-dimension space. This Cecil Algonquin and Randolph nodded to, and imparted wisdom that would stay inside him like a hidden elixir until he needed it, because otherwise he could not make himself small and earthy. This Cecil, who had become Cecil in a tangible way again while the other non-Cecil was beyond matter and distinction of purpose from other parts of the universe, and could not be separated from the mass that they all came from, who stood at the Ultimate Gate because he was the Gate – this Cecil was instructed and shrunk and the information bottled up inside so he could return to earth and fit back into his man suit.
He saw the world again as it presented itself and how it really was, but the latter only in a flash containing information he could not now absorb. It blinded him and he grabbed his eyes, to protect them or tear them out. He kept them shut, listening to the sound of his own breathing which he recognized as his own breathing in his body, which was so impossibly finite now even if it always edged into the fourth dimension and he felt a tug when it did. Remembering fear, he heard the sounds of Management tossing body parts against their corporeal door to express their alarm.
It was too quiet. That was the problem. Cecil looked at the clock, which had no numbers or hands but told him that despite the “on air” light being lit, there had been no sounds in this room for four minutes and thirty-five seconds. It was an unacceptable amount of time.
Cecil stepped over Al’s body after covering the face with his bloodied robe, and took his seat before the wireless microphone. His hands rested on the desk. They were not shaking. No part of him was shaking, or nervous, or twitching. Everything was perfectly still, as it should be.
Everywhere in Night Vale, people were gathered around their sets, turning them all the way up and holding their breaths. Over the last minute they’d been murmuring, but no one had done anything, not even the Secret Police. There was the weather and then dead air.
And then there was sound. “Welcome back, dear listeners. We at Night Vale Community Radio would like to apologize for the delay in the program. We experienced some ... technical difficulties here at the station. The building briefly ceased to exist, but I can assure you that it has returned to its normal state and will continue to bring you news and entertainment for you to wile away your remaining hours – or perhaps, maybe mere seconds – until death.
“It is my deepest regret to inform you that Algonquin, the Voice of Night Vale, has left us. After forty-three years of service on public radio, he has departed for a well-deserved rest. He is on a journey, and I cannot say when or if he will ever be back. For those of you who would weep, I would encourage you to look to the stars and follow their paths. If you wonder deeply enough and travel far enough, your paths may cross his.
“In accordance with Cherokee burial customs, the body of Algonquin will be interred tomorrow. The ceremony will begin at noon in the parking lot out back the Ralph’s. A summary of the events will be reported with the evening broadcast. The broadcast will go on. We will all go on. We will all pretend that we understand our forward-moving reality and what to expect from it, and we will be surprised to learn we are wrong. But at the very least, we will do it together.”
“Stay tuned for alternating sounds of cheetahs and leopards screaming.”
“Good night, Night Vale. Good night.”
The Cecil who waited patiently for the “on-air” light to click off was not tired in mind. He was renewed, his mind contemplative but active. His body was settled and comfortable, but it was also exhausted. There was no reason to push himself now after so long a fight, so he was still sitting there when the police arrived to take Algonquin’s body away and congratulate him on his new position.
“The City Council would like to speak with you after the funeral,” the officer said, but Cecil knew it before he’d said it, and only nodded in response.
There were some people gathered around the station, but he was not famous yet – he hadn’t said his name on air – so he avoided them. He had so much to think about. And he had to get ready for tomorrow’s show.
A shaman showed up for the funeral, which was conducted in Al’s backyard, where he’d somehow made a garden grow. Cecil hadn’t called the shaman but he appeared in what Cecil assumed was the appropriate dress. Cecil had spent the morning acquiring a black suit and tie. The service was actually rather lovely in how quiet it was. Many, many people came up to Cecil and offered their condolences. He shook their hands and nodded politely because this wasn’t really a time for him to speak. They wanted to talk to him. People who did know him gave him looks that said they would ask later, if they would ask at all, how the transition went. But now was the time for whispers and hushed tones. The shaman assumed Cecil was a relative and therefore a mourner, and informed him of several mourning customs, including washing himself seven times after leaving the plot to purify his body and soul.
To be honest, Cecil had never felt purer in his life.
He walked over to City Hall afterwards (he still didn’t own a car). The council did their best to look politely intimidating, and the mayor and deputy sheriff were also present. There was only one seat for him to take, the one at the table with some paperwork on it so that they circled around and towered over him on their podiums, but he wasn’t cowed.
“Mr. Baldwin,” the mayor explained, “the City Council would like you to understand that we had certain arrangements with your predecessor, and we would prefer these arrangements continue for the sake of the town.”
Cecil nodded and carefully read the paperwork. There were all kinds of restrictions on his movement, what he could and could not report on, and how and when he could use the Voice. Most of it was redundant from his Station Management contract, the one that was far more enforceable. For an instant he blinked and he saw their illusions of power melt away. They had not been beyond the First Gate; they did not see the radio station for what it was or understand its purpose. But it probably wasn’t a good idea to tell them that. So he smiled and signed above the line that said “VOICE OF NIGHT VALE.” Several people were gathered outside – mostly members of the press corp that followed the mayor around – but he answered very few questions. He couldn’t tarry.
He had a show to do.