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HFTH - Episode 129 - Cats

Content warnings for this episode include: Cats, Sad Dogs, Freezing to Death, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs, Body horror, Consumption of Inedible Materials (frogs)

Intro - The End Begins

And so it begins. I warned you, dreamer, months ago, when the autumn was young. That this third act in our narrative, the coming winter, the promised spring was fast approaching. And it is shocking how quickly we have arrived. I do not know what I expected. The future seems a long journey, the past barely a step on the road, and yet both are equally distant from us now. Equally near. What did you do today, dreamer? I feel as though we always talk about me. Did you walk beneath the sun? Did you search for water not too steeped in blood to drink? Did you take in the rush of wind, as your atmosphere shifted? Did you enjoy it, before you laid your head down to rest and fell into a familiar nightmare?

I hope you did. I hope it was worth living another day, some small part of this. But I am not sure which would be better. That you do treasure these moments and find something in them that is cause to wake up tomorrow morning, and wake up again and again after that, leave behind these dreams each night to greet a new sun. To find potential in this wasteland of a life, to find some hope in the changing of the age.

Would it be better to have nothing? Only to suffer? Only misery? Would it not be a mercy, then, to end your tired days? You stayed awake past the sunset of your kind, but there was nothing left to wait for, and the stars brought you no comfort when they emerged. Yes. If there was nothing left for you, than surely this choice would be easier.

And it is a choice. It is a choice that you have little say in, now. You are far south of this winter storm, that thunders in the arctic beyond the northern stretch of your world. It is a choice that will be made by a few people, now, and you have dreamt of them many times now. You have followed their footsteps from spring, to summer, and finally to the end of your winter year. But I know that I cannot blame them, entirely, no matter which way they fall. I am the one who has weighed heavy on their thoughts, woken them from dreams, moved their currents ever so slightly. Whatever is to come, it is my choice as well. I am not sure I am ready to make it. I think I am. But we never know whether we have it in us to jump until we reach the precipice.

This is where the end begins. Perhaps for these people we have followed, perhaps for your kind, perhaps for the last great work of a master artist. All these paths converge to these—a forest of black pines, and a library, and a heart that beats beneath the ice and snow. We will find out soon who the end is for.

I do not love all the members of our narrative equally. There is one in particular who even now is in the north, who travels alongside more important people, who watches them not to share with the dreaming universe but to catalogue for a dark parliament. There is much to come in this closing of the chapter, many threads to see through to completion, and we shall get the most distasteful out of the way first. We go now to a cat.

Story 1 - Thirteen Lives

Nimbus was a cat, and cats are fickle, not by nature, for no being’s nature is prewritten, but by choice. They choose to be despicable creatures, and Nimbus in particular enjoyed their occupation. Yes, Nimbus had come far from her home in the Dream-City of Distant Kazanth, the lair where her loathsome parliament convenes to share dark secrets, commune on all the happenings of the universe, and determine where next their eyes should open. Always watching, always recording for the greater council of cats, to safeguard the universe from life indescribable, or so they say. I would not trust the word of cats.

Nimbus, like most cats, was noncommittal about his presentation of self, and his placement in space, and changed the both of them frequently. The true cat is veiled, unknowable. The cat that people saw was a grey tabby, more often than not, with patterns like rippling smoke in its fur, the dark underbelly of a stormcloud.

It was tiring work, Nimbus found, but there was no opportunity for sleep yet. Not when the mission they had been assigned was so important to the parliament. A mission Nimbus could briefly summarize as, what is happening on Earth, and what will come of it? Will it become the kind of place where a cat can walk about his business, or full of that resentful life from beyond the stars?

Nimbus was chosen for her skill and prowess, and indeed the forces that dwelt upon this sorry rock were spiteful of her presence. The one formed of rats, in particular, despised her, and she it, and their battles had raged in many sewers and basements and other smelly places. Two masters of sight, two masters of secrets, two masters of the dark at war for the future. But the future was not in her claws, now, but that of a great many people at once, and all of them Nimbus surveyed, and remembered, and dedicated the memory to Distant Kazanth.

Nimbus sat on a ledge of ice, a cave beneath the frostbitten surface of the arctic, where a pool of water had not yet been frozen by the monumental drop in temperature above. His fur was nipped with frost, his whiskers iced, but he stared unblinking at the surface, and a tragic thing stared back with an ever-shifting number of eyes. This was why they fought. In all the secret places of the universe, they fought the indescribable corruption that heavenly life wrought upon creation.

For this was what came of it, when the powers that be were allowed to go unchecked and unpunished. This seething mass of life fused together, never to be undone. The thing that was nameless, the thing with a thousand names, the thing that called itself Creep watched back from the water, too afraid to reach out and try to touch the cat. Good, Nimbus thought. You remember at least the old fear that all indescribable life shares. Nimbus blinked, and was somewhere else, had been somewhere else all along. Both were true, for cats are creatures of paradox, you understand.

She also was in the midst of a snowstorm, walked in lazy circles to keep her fur from freezing up entirely, although her circulation was not at risk of shutting down the same way that it was for true mortal beings. She thought, as she paced, about what had come before. All those lives lived tended to blur together, after long enough. Her fur had been lighter, once, her eyes a different color. Had she lived in a small apartment? Had she turned up her nose at a dry meal? Had she stolen snippets of fish from a plate? Had she been held close by a nervous human being? Had she been loved? She could hardly recall. After all, she was a cat, and it was all the same to her.

She watched, as her tiny feet left footprints in the snow, the shaking ice beneath her feet. One scrape at a time, ferocious claw by claw, Diggory Graves was escaping the tumult where they had been buried. By the time their blade-tipped hand cracked the final plate of ice to emerge into the storm, Nimbus was already gone.

Nimbus was a ghost, curls of grey flowing across his fur, and he sat on the back of a broom as it travelled. There were three other passengers, a lot for one broom. A girl who whispered enchantments to keep her skin warm, flew into the storm with a singular purpose from the library far south, praying that she would be able to complete her greatest mission, earn the help of the Director, save her father.

She took direction from an untethered ghost, one that noticed Nimbus on the back of the broom with confusion, and love, whose static hands had once touched his fur. Nimbus might have stayed longer, there, but the third occupant was a very inquisitive and bothersome hound, also on the plane of spirits, and he blinked again before it could give chase.

Nimbus sat beside a girl who crawled through the snow. She believed she must keep moving, must stay awake, but it was cold beyond any she had ever felt, and the blood chilled in her veins, made the moving slow and the thoughts hazy. She trudged onwards, one buckling step at a time in the blizzard. The sword at her side was grown over with frost.

Around her, although she could not see, the frigid little beasts of the new north kept a careful eye. They were scavengers, and they could sense when death drew close. Just a little farther, Nimbus thought. You are closer than you know. If the girl saw Nimbus, she did not believe her eyes; she was dreaming standing up, now.

They peered from a crate, one of several that lay on the back of a red-armored titan. He was a lover of birds, and Nimbus was a lover of birds, although they loved them for different reasons. He stomped forward into the blizzard, one ice-shaking step at a time, and behind him dragged in a makeshift sled a woman.

One of the great instigators, for certainly, it was Cindy Lockheart’s fault that this expedition had encompassed so many paths. She had been bound on this path for years. Finally, she drew close to its end. She regarded Nimbus for a moment, caught their eyes peeking from beneath the lid of the supply crate. Her look was respectful. Two survivors, making their way into uncharted territory. Two soldiers, dedicated to their missions. Two tired warriors ready for rest.

But not all of Nimbus’ assignments were so far north. Certainly, there was one to which they had been dedicated, but if Nimbus had one downfall, it was that he was too thorough. He enjoyed documentation for the sake of it. It was more laborious, yes, but it also led to impeccable results. A full story to review, multifaceted and complex, as the reality often was. Unfortunately he was a cat, and not life indescribable, and so all that careful chronicling was for a wasted purpose. Nimbus did not know that. Nimbus felt very self-convicted.

And so he was also, in a blink, in the Northmost wood, where the runaway starwolf and the demon walked, pursued their friend into the arctic. They were not so surprised by their surroundings as the first party had been. After all, one dreamt of the heavens, and one was born of them. Nimbus admired the tenacity to defy their respective masters, rebel against life indescribable. Although he tried not to be biased in his work, he hoped they survived the outcome. It might be a useful example, if it worked, for others to follow.

He was south of the edge of the forest, sitting in an abandoned house window, overlooking a cracked street of asphalt and shattered glass. A gigantic form picked across the stone, with many legs entwined in precise movements, long hands investigating anything shiny or living, small hands curled close to her chest. Her mouth was stretched wide and full of teeth, her eyes a host of small white points.

Her skin was furred, and hard, and cracked, and grey, and she droned on into a small silver box. She made Nimbus feel differently than Creep did, although both were touched by life indescribable, one was born of that dreadful experiment, and one was only changed. What would her life have been, Nimbus wondered, if she was a paradox like me? Untouched by the rain, would she be happy? Nimbus blinked away before she could spot him and try to eat him whole.

He wandered north again, into a room. It had only one occupant, and that was a dog. A dog who had not been forgotten about, as the dog felt it had. It was just that the dog’s master had departed, a moment ago, and the dog was not allowed to come, and it was not sure its master would be back. But the dog had lost its first master, and its second, and its twin. It laid its head in its paws, and did not rise to show interest in Nimbus. Nimbus waited there in the darkness with it, for a few moments. It could offer no comfort, beyond being there at the same time, ever so briefly.

It was there in the lap of a girl who sat sleeping in a wheelchair a floor down on the other side of the great wooden fort with all the smelly dogs. Nimbus rested there for a moment, although her travels would soon have to continue. The girl had not meant to fall asleep, but wandered far in her dreams, searching for a distant voice, anyone in need of a reminder to wake up, to keep fighting, to march a little longer. For some of them, Nimbus thought, the sleep that is to come has no awakening. The girl shifted, moved her hand to brush Nimbus’ fur, and she purred. But she was gone when the girl began to stir.

He blinked into a hole in a fallen log, sat in the darkness as a creature walked by. It might once have been a frog, or was born of an ancestry of frogs. But it had been twisted, like so much life had. Twisted by the changing of the age into an upright shape, with dextrous fingers that grasped and rows of tiny sharp teeth. The bulbous eyes were much the same. Nimbus had eaten several frogs, but this one was a bit large for his taste.

The frog had been changed too, more recently, by the drown god, that loathsome lurker, and bounced on legs that were far too long, and looked almost now like a man. The solitary frog stopped to stare at Nimbus, and Nimbus stared back. No, Nimbus thought, I am not judging you for your silly legs. The frog man kept walking. He was going to be late at this rate, Nimbus thought. By the time he arrives to enforce his goddess’ mission, it might all be over already.

Before returning to the north, the cat known briefly as Nimbus stopped in to visit a friend. The cat known briefly as Tivali was a black deep as night, and very fluffy, and complained of the change in venue. It was back to life in the van, now that the Night-Gaunt was freed. Nimbus would have liked to spend more time with Tivali, perhaps perform this last part of the documentation together, but she knew they could not. Tivali had her own mission, after all, and her stooped ward was a terror to watch in her own right. Nimbus left her to it, with a last touch of noses, and returned to the last of their rounds.

To a clearing in the woods, where two figures stood sitting on either side of a fallen yellow hat. The other German Shepherd, waiting patiently for its master to return. Not in this aeon, Nimbus thought. And a self-proclaimed king, wearing a crown of invisible flame, antlers and droves of flowers and mushrooms springing from what was once mortal skin.

Nimbus hated him, for they had both chosen their sides now, in a way. And on opposite forces they fell. The Faceless King looked up to regard him, but he vanished before he could muster his fire or his armies, try and drive the cat away. It would have been a momentary distraction, at best. The king felt that the spring was near, now. Perhaps too near to stop.

Nimbus was in a bag, a leather pouch, suspended high over the arctic circle. It was home to a few books, torn apart by moisture and cold. It was held by a vessel, one more casualty of indescribable life. Nimbus wished there was more she could do for them; after all, they had been the first to bring her into the circle. But those beautiful eyes, lit with blue lightning, stared up into the twisting clouds now, and arcs of blazing light connected their vision with heaven, and their mouth was open, skin chilled and frosted over, hands outstretched, fingers blue as tumultuous winds turned in gigantic spirals across the world beneath, an ocean of seething cloud and flying snow. That was the curse of life indescribable, they thought; in the end, it destroyed all that it touched, no matter how much it loved it.

But they were not alone, not anymore. From higher in the atmosphere, a cerulean light descended, an azure angel, and as she floated towards them, the ribbons and curls of her cloak billowed in the blizzard like the garments of a god. The light in Olivier’s eyes died as she enshrouded them, and wrapped them in blue, and Nimbus lost sight of the world and the seething storm below.

Nimbus sat on a ledge of ice, a cave beneath the frostbitten surface of the arctic, where a pool of water was changing in temperature. What have you done, Nimbus thought. If the storm continued, the ice stayed thick and the surface of the ocean biting cold, this tragic mass of life would stay down here, avoiding becoming trapped again in the ice.

But already, as the conduit of the Weather is spirited away into the sky, the storm begins to subside. The flying winds less hungry, the driving snow less urgent. The blizzard fades. Nimbus stared at the water, and Creep stared back, knowing with countless eyes, smiling with countless hungry mouths. And then the darkness boils for the surface, and the end begins.

The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Cat Person' and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!

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