Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Bert mentioned), Suicidal themes, Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror
Intro - Walking Away
You remember little, except in dreams, and in those your past and future are the same, beginning and end bleeding together. The sun, small and red at the dawn of creation, and the same as it is extinguished. The first motes of life, microscopic and writhing in the water, all that is left in the aftermath. But this is the story of your planet, not the story of you.
Your story is of being born with hope, of being told that you could change anything you set your mind to, and realizing all too late that you could not. You stood in the parks, screaming for the future, waving your signs and banners. You fought, not for the impossible future, but to say that you fought. That you did not go quietly. So that no one could say you did not try. But the night the rains fell, and the black storm hovered over the face of your earth, you left your signs in the rain and walked. As you walked north, all you thought of was the death of democracy and justice, and as you sank into the gentle waters, you dreamt of a Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I stand on a thin sheet of ice. The snowflakes melt upon it, so that it seems a mirror of black glass. A girl weeps beside the lake, a choice before her, although she knows there was only ever one choice. The theme of tonight’s episode is Liberties.
Story 1 - Democracy and Justice
Clementine Maidstone sat on the dragon-shaped log beside Lurch Lake in the early dawn haze, wiping freezing tears from her eyes and rubbing her nose with her sleeve. Her breath was a fog like the one that blanketed the lake, and her yellow Scoutpost jacket kept out the worst of the cold. A huge black shape sat on the other side of the lake; a pile of tar-colored feathers and a half-open eye regarding her—Frogsticker had become a familiar hazard of the shore by now, a cantankerous defender from the rare Froglin that ventured too close. But there had not been many Froglins lately. They must be sleeping beneath the ice for the winter, she thought, and looked down to the lake. It was not the worst idea.
There was a tapping beneath the ice, and she looked to the lake surface to find something scraping the underside of it—a stick, a reed. A skeletal finger, and then a hand, and then several hands cracking the ice as they reached up from the water below.
She rolled back over the log in surprise, and peeked from behind it at the broken ice. There were two things—two human skulls, crowns of desiccated white threads that might have been the frozen skeletons of lily flowers. Twin green flames burned in the eye sockets of one, while an eel writhed inside the skull of the other.
“Hello?” she said, trying to remember Riot’s descriptions of the things that slept in the lake. She had neither coffee nor a silver-dipped sword to offer them.
“Democracy cannot succeed… the end is near. Nearer now. Nearer now. Choose wisely,” muttered the one full of frogs.
“The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” whispered the one with the eel through her eyes, although whether to Clementine or to her companion, she could not tell. “A blind snake, a rolling river. She will not be shaped by any hand.”
“Sorry if I disturbed you,” Clementine said. “I thought I was alone.”
“Why do you weep?” said Justice, the eel in her skull peering at Clementine quizzically. “The end is not here yet.”
“Close,” whispered Democracy. “The heart quickens. The coming dawn. Soon. Tomorrow, perhaps. The day after. We will not see many more sunsets.”
“My sister Riot talked about you,” Clementine said, trying not to choke on her words. “She said she brought you coffee. Do you remember her?”
“The end is not here yet,” Justice refrained.
“It’s the end for some people,” Clementine sniffed, and laid her head against the frozen bark. “It might be the end for Riot. Danielle can’t feel her. She stopped dreaming. I don’t know if she’s coming back.”
A skeleton and an eel inside a skeleton watched her vacantly, clinging to the fragile ice of the shore, adrift in snowflakes. Botco had drilled into her skull and buried thoughts there; they had taught her how to dream and how to smile, but not how to handle losing someone who was a part of you. And that was an emotion that sat beneath the surface of her mind and threatened to drown her if she wandered too close to it. She sobbed for Riot and for air.
“Ends are beginnings,” Democracy whispered, skull half-free of the water, eye fires burning. “Beginnings are ends. We do not weep because it is over. We weep for the old, changing into the new. A working faith in the possibilities is required. It ends and ends and ends. It is never over.”
“You waste words on her,” Justice said, seemingly to her companion rather than to Clementine. “They will not listen. They will not understand. Not until it is upon us. There is no warning you can speak that they will hear. It is impossible for them to envision from this side. You remember. I remember. The permanence. Life and death are not on and off states. We know this now, and we know it is just. Better silent. Better sleeping.”
The two skeletons continued to mumble to each other, but there was a crunching now, the sound of footsteps approaching from the Scoutpost path. Clementine looked up to find her mother hurrying towards her, clinging to a blanket for warmth, feet unsteady on the lightly snowed soil.
“I’m sorry,” she wept, and fell around Clementine, embraced her. She was much warmer than the log. “For what I said. I just… I hope she comes back. Somehow. I hope she comes home.”
Clementine put her head against the woman she had thought of, for a large portion of her brief life, as her mother.
“I hope so too, mom,” she said. Wondered if Valerie appreciated the casual use of it. Wondered if Riot would have minded. Wondered if she was ever going to see her face again outside of a mirror.
“I should have gone after her,” Valerie continued, tears hot and wet. “I should have said goodbye.”
Her mother continued to cry, and Clementine joined her, but she watched the harbingers of her personal doom descend beneath the water, flaming eyes bubbling beneath the ice again. Deep down, beyond the crushing weight of Riot disappearing off the face of the earth, was the sickening feeling that she and Valerie and everyone at the Scoutpost might soon follow, and the equally perturbing thought that by now, she might not care if they did.
The final words of Democracy and Justice, she could not be certain of. They sounded like a parting call. A promise that the water wasn’t cold.
Interlude 1 - Pursuit of Happiness
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One out of three isn’t bad. Life is a lost cause, if you dream on earth, or close enough that you should not get your hopes up. There are three means by which it might persist—one is the charges in Mort’s backpack, one is in the hands of Diggory Graves, and the last is in the Cradle at the heart of Downing Hill. But even with my help, your odds are diminishing at best. Better to forget Life for now.
Liberty, likewise, is an illusion. You have liberty, now. Liberty to scrounge enough food to survive the winter. Liberty to tread upon your fellow human beings for a meager chance at survival. Liberty to live in a wasted world. What kind of liberty is this at all?
The pursuit of happiness, however? You are still free to try. You have precious little, but you have each other. The future is uncertain, but there are gentle joys to be found in the present. And you may yet find a little magnificence in the snow, in the forest canopy, in the glow of ice upon the winter trees, the smile of a friend or loved one. What else is left to pursue?
We go now to one who is failing his pursuit of happiness.
Story 2 - Summons
Polly stepped out of the whirlwind of flame into a wasteland. Cascades of snow flitted in the air, clouds parting to reveal blasphemous skies. To his back there was the edge of the northmost woods, where the ice sheets met the rocky cliffs upon which they sat, and ahead of him was the sanctimonious sanctum of the Garden of the End.
“Apollyon, wait,” said Yaretzi, huge wolven feet uneasy on this ground. He expected she could feel the ocean churning deep below; some abhorrent thing was alive beneath the ice, rising with the temperature as a storm faded out.
“Please explain,” Yaretzi growled. “We are moving too quickly. What is this place? Is this where Mort has gone?”
“You remember your people’s old temples?” Polly said. “Stone things with steps, layers?”
“Of course I remember them,” Yaretzi said. “What does this have to do with finding Mort?”
“The temple we’re in is similar,” Polly said. “We keep climbing layers. And we’re close to the center now, close to the top. Except it’s a temple to a much worse sort of god.”
Yaretzi inhaled deeply, breathed out rolling fog. “Something is wrong in this place.”
“You’d be hard-pressed to find something that wasn’t,” he said. He did not tap his umbrella lest it attract undue attention from whatever vile behemoth flitted below. It surged away from them, further on towards the horizon. “If we’re lucky we’ll find Mort in a few pieces instead of a hundred.”
“Do not say such things,” Yaretzi snapped, pawing ahead with no caution at all. He stepped in double time to keep pace with the great wolf, which allowed for no walking rhythm with his umbrella cane. “We will find him and he will be fine.”
“You’re not being realistic,” Polly muttered, but an ear twitch told him she had heard it. “Come to think of it, if you hadn’t made me wait so long before getting him back, we could have avoided all of this in the first place.”
“If he is alright, then no harm has come of this. But I am not the one who allowed him to leave in the night and join his strange new friends in this journey,” she growled back.
“You blame me for all of this?” he said, a dress shoe slipping on the rime. “If it wasn’t for my burning a hell of a lot of flame for all this travel, we’d be half a world away sniffing the dirt for seagull scented rot.”
“I do not blame anyone,” Yaretzi said, and leapt across a rift in the ice before them, a crevice ten feet across and twice as deep, and skidded to a stop on the other side, looked back at him. “I cannot keep doing this.”
“Cannot keep what?” Polly said. “Searching for Mort? Take a break, be my guest. You’ve done so much lately. Let me take over.”
Where did the bitterness in his tone come from, he wondered? He sounded like Tiff. He didn’t like sounding like Tiff. But this place, this kind of stress brought out the worst in him.
“I do not know the word for how to say,” she said. “You are drowning in fear. I can smell it in you more than all the perfumes you wear. More than the fire in your heart. You hold on to me as though you cannot swim, and you hope that I can carry us both. But I am also scared. I cannot always be the wise word to comfort you. We are co-managers of the hotel but I am doing all of the managing.”
Polly thought about hopping through another vortex of flame to join her on the other side, but resisted a moment, planted his umbrella point in the snow. Having to flame across was just one more inconsiderate thing, and suddenly he had found his hill to die on.
“You think you’re overworked?” he said. “Well I am sorry that I have a little caution about our situation. I’m sorry I burden you with my worries about the mortal danger we live in every day that you seem so content to ignore. I managed perfectly well before you came along trying to kill me, you know that?”
“Even now you panic, and I am the first you wound,” Yaretzi spat as the great black wolf in a white void. She shook her head, rattled golden beads and earrings throughout her fur. “Even though I have risked the same as you. Even though I have given as much for this family as you have. Give in to your fear if you want. I have Mort’s scent now. I can find him. If you would like to fight for our family instead of running, for once, then find us a way to get home.”
She turned, and in two great bounds, was far into the horizon, as strange as the starlight.
Marketing - Page 768
Lady Ethel Mallory:
It’s starting to look sordidly Canadian now, all pine trees and rocky barrens. I’ve made a temporary home in the top of a rusty electric tower, spun a shelter. There’s not much to work with around here but it’s something. I’ve been thinking over today’s walk about choice-
*crackle of static as the program changes*
Hi everybodyyy! It’s so nice to see everyone tuning in. I’m sorry we haven’t done more Dreamstreams lately, but I’ve been pretty busy after being put in charge of Botco’s entire marketing division! It’s a huge honor to stand where Lady Ethel Mallory stood for so long, in the dreamcast studio at Box Cassiopeia. These are some great big shoes to fill.
In the meantime, I’ve started changing so much about our marketing strategy. Did you know that for almost twenty years we were sending out dreamcast ads to… almost nobody? I’m all about efficient choices, so obviously those were the first thing to shut down.
But I’m using her studio tonight, so that our happy dreaming family and anyone who might still be dreaming out there can hear it. Because what we’re going to talk about is important. I’d like to welcome our special guest for tonight, Stonemaid leader Dashiell Spade. How are you tonight, Dashiell? Have you been comfortable?
I’ve been kept in a cell. Nice upholstery, yes, but still a cell. Every day they pry for secrets I can never share. I don’t know how long I have left as their prisoner. But I will never give in. Stonemaids don’t back down.
I don’t want you to think of yourself as a prisoner, we as a technology company certainly don’t take prisoners.
Sure. Captive. Inmate. Whatever you want to call it. I’m not allowed to leave. No one is.
This is actually the reason I wanted to talk to you today. I think we should have a conversation about framing.
It’s a conversation I’ve already had with your boss, and she framed us as violent extremists.
She’s not my boss, anymore. I make the marketing decisions now. Me.
...I wanted to talk with you about the Stonemaids. Because there are still Stonemaids in the Prime Dream, and this is getting out of hand. Yesterday they altered the Prime Dream Grand Canyon and filled it with the killer gargoyles from Azuria. It’s going to take weeks of retraining the algorithm to get us back to scenic views of the sunset.
Good for them.
But how did we get here? To a place where members of our own community sabotage it for everyone else? Let’s hear it from the Stonemaid point of view. For our audience.
I don’t know what game you’re playing. But sure, kid. I was skeptical about Botco from the start. Where’d a tech company get the ability, the resources to build superstructures across the States? Something’s fishy. But before I could track that paper trail, follow my red string through to the heart of who the hell this Oswald Biggs Botulus is, the rains hit. Suddenly buying your product ain’t a polite customer conversation. It’s life or death. My wife made me promise to take our daughter there. If only she’d lived to…
I was thinking more the Stonemaid history than the Dashiell Spade history.
It’s the start. Because as soon as I joined the Prime Dream, I knew something was off. And I wasn’t the only one. We’d abandoned the world. Given it up without a fight. And I couldn’t find a way to end my subscription. To leave the Prime Dream. Customer service wouldn’t give a straight answer one way or another. Turns out, it was right there, page seven hundred and sixty eight of the terms and conditions. Botco sees us as company property. And that property ain’t free to go.
This is the reframing I was talking about.
How in the hell do you reframe that?
All this conflict and negative energy and frankly, bad vibes, in the Prime Dream over the last few years… it wasn’t political. It wasn’t an evil mastermind plan we made to keep you trapped forever. It was a simple misunderstanding between you, the consumer, and us, the tech company, in the terms and conditions.
Doesn’t make a difference. You profit off us while we’re in here. You use our thoughts, our labor, our jobs. You’ll never let us go while we can generate a dime of value for you. And you’ll crush anyone who speaks up about it.
You’re wrong, Dash. Here at Botco, we don’t see our customers as numbers on a board. We see each and every person as a beautiful human being with beautiful dreams. And we do not see the Stonemaids as an enemy. Just valued customers of the Botulus Corporation that have a valid complaint with a single paragraph of company policy.
What are you saying?
I’m saying, with me on behalf of the Botulus Corporation, and you on behalf of the Stonemaid movement, let’s settle this once and for all.
Story 2, Continued - Summons
I appreciate that Melanie Flores does not use the power of dream as frequently or idly as Lady Ethel Mallory does. I do not appreciate that both of them are interrupting my programs at this time. Not when we are so close. Both of their distractions are… trivial. In so many aspects. I am tired.
We return now to Apollyon.
He was alone. It should not have bothered him so much; he had been alone for centuries. Yaretzi ran much faster than he could, and if he fell through a vortex of space to pursue her and get in a few more words, he was going to have to apologize or explain himself, neither of which he was ready to do, and so he walked alone for a while.
His vision was obfuscated here—partially because all the directions bled together, partially because the ocean was a churning mass of souls beneath his feet, and the horizon equally so. But the warp of indescribable power meant that he was essentially on a straight line with Mort, he’d just have to catch up to them. If there was still a Mort to catch up to. If somewhere in the haze of souls on the horizon, Mort was still intact, walking. Ready to come home.
He stuck his umbrella against the ice as he walked. He was afraid, now that Yaretzi had mentioned it. It was a quiet burden that sat on him at all times, little claws sunk between his shoulderblades, breathing cold on his neck. It had never really left, because the Industry was always a flicker of flame away, and it was a fragile bargain that had bought him his peace. And no one could pick holes in a contract like Typhon the Terrible. And Mort disappearing, well, that was a worst fear come to life. Prophesied exactly as he had dreaded. It made him wonder how many other unspoken worries were waiting to manifest for him.
He could hear it. Beneath his umbrella, beneath the cracking ice, beneath the bloodmass, beneath the sea floor. The heartbeat that made the world tremble, now beating at a fever pitch. A hum of creation that intensified every minute. One more fear. They did not have much time, not much at all.
I have time either to worry or to act, and in this moment, he thought, I choose to act. I have run away from my job and I have bargained for my freedom. I have found a family for myself. Yaretzi, Mort, the Hotel. I have every good thing I ever dreamed of, if I can only stay in the present enough to treasure it instead of worrying ceaselessly about tomorrow. I have to fight this, he thought; keep my head above the water. Believe that I will get to keep this, today, and tomorrow, and the day after. And he found himself running, umbrella tucked under his arm, calling Yaretzi’s name as he sprinted across the ice barrens with not a hint of dignity, tie flapping in the polar wind behind him.
“Don’t worry, Mort!” he shouted, in hopes that somehow Mort would hear it from some faraway place. “We’re coming for you!”
There was a tear, then.
The obsidian sky was torn open, and the wound smoldered with fire. From it fell three metal caskets wrapped in chains of black iron. He recognized them immediately; slid to a stop as they awoke. He knew that running would do no good. They transformed, metal skulls rising from the plates of their armor, long claws emerging from metal sleeves, chains and furnace chests and eyes combusting with the white-hot flame of souls.
Three judges, three avengers, three auditors dragging coils of mighty chain through the air. And hovering in the gateway above them, a heavenly white light.
Two bright suede shoes, white, untarnished. Gold heels.
Trousers, crisp pleats. Sharp angles.
Suit coat, thigh length. One side tucked behind to make room for a hand casually in the trouser pocket. Jacket also white; watch also gold, although all the heavens and the earth were captured beneath its crystal face.
Golden buttons on the vest, leading up to a scandalously unbuttoned dress shirt beneath. Tie hung in two separate halves, a mark of superiority, unpunished defiance. Face only half pretending to be human, as crystalline as the watch, for it had been a long time indeed since his boss’s boss stepped foot upon the earth.
“Hello Lucy,” Polly said.
“Apollyon,” said Lucifer, with no smile at all. “You have been summoned before the court of the Industry of Souls. Do not waste my time with resistance.”
The fight was swift, momentary even, a cascade of fire as he leapt and twisted through the air, darting for freedom, calling a sky full of meteors if only to distract the auditors for a moment. Their chains, twisting after him as though seeking the souls of the guilty, the red-hot iron that scalded his skin and tore through the fragile fabrics of his suit like charring paper, and all the while Lucifer watching calmly, not even troubled enough to lift a hand.
And then it was over, and a smoldering umbrella was left upon the ice, and the vortex in the sky disappeared in a flicker of light, and there were only drifting embers where Apollyon had stood, and no more demons in the arctic circle.
Interlude 2 - Finding Freedoms
What is freedom? Not for your kind, dreamer, but for mine. When you are as long-lived as a universe, you must be bound by a purpose—I understand this. For if you are not, then you might easily become lost by your fifth or sixth thousandth year. When the aeons pass like seconds, when the sense of self is only a thought, an invisible flame, an infinite presence in a finite universe. Purpose gives us substance. Gives us form. Reminds us that we exist and have reason to keep existing.
This, then, is perhaps why we hold our own names and titles with such reverence. I am not some shapeless watcher, a vague gargantua with nothing of substance to my name, no conviction or character. No. I am All Who Dream. I am One Hundred Eyes In The Dark. I am Your Loyal Host.
I was Who Watches the Gates, once. And then I watched from Marolmar’s side instead. But what am I now? Have I left that title behind? Or am I still clinging to some long-lost purpose, even now? Terrified of what I am without it? All that I could be? What am I, dreamer, if the heart is stopped? If the last of Marolmar’s memory dies, will I be free?
We go now to one filled with purpose.
Story 3 - Uproar in Box Venus
Moth had known uproar before. Living in Las Vegas, of course, when moth’s little family of survivors fought to scavenge resources away from all the other nameless families of survivors. Driving across the country with the strangest of strangers. Outrunning Botco’s shiny black drones until the day they finally caught up. And in the Prime Dream, a dozen protests, mass inputs of corrupted memory to damage the database of dream upon which the whole dreaming country was built.
A thousand flaming air balloons over San Francisco. Statues of liberty blocking every street of New York, painted with a thousand Stonemaid symbols. There had been uproar at each event that reminded the public that the Stonemaids existed. That no matter what Botco’s propaganda said, they existed, and could not be trained out with reconditioning or isolated from the rest of the dream. But Moth had not seen uproar like this before. It was felt, rather than seen right away; a tremor from far off, spreading through their network like a thunderous tide of thought.
“Christ almighty, they won’t shut up,” said Frances. Her outfit, once a roller skate waitress, now reflected the spikes and buckles and smeared mascara of a battle-hardened rebel. She looked out of place in the dim brown apartment they nestled in; a replica of a motel they had once camped in on the outskirts of Vegas.
“They’re just trying to spread the news, Frances,” said Bill. Moth’s father had not been the same since… well, ever, really, and whatever Botco claimed to have done to help him, it had not been enough. His head, once ringed by hair of smoke, was half a crater of smoldering ash now, a classical statue’s chiseled face firebombed by the future.
“Well, we got the news. Everyone and their grandmother got the news,” Frances said, silencing the nonstop thrum of dreaming notifications from their contacts in the Stonemaid network. “And it’s bird crap. They’d never do it. This is all for show.”
“Maybe Mr. Spade will be able to negotiate for us,” said Moth, feeling childish for clinging to optimism in the same room as these two tired cynics. “Maybe all our protests have convinced them, and Botco’s changing their mind.”
“Fat chance,” Frances said, and cracked open a box of cigarettes. Even in dream, habits were habits.
“They’ve been hounding us for decades, Moth,” said Bill, smoldering away. “You know it as much as I do. They’re not going to change all of a sudden now.”
“I suppose it wouldn’t change that much anyway,” Moth sighed.
“Whaddya mean?” squinted Frances.
“I’ve only just thought about it now,” said Moth, dreaming wings fluttering despondently. “But this fight, it’s important. But it’s not for us. Bill, you can’t leave, because the black water will surely make you like you were before. And Frances, you said you were wounded by shrapnel. Even if they let you go, it might be safer for you in here than fighting out in the desert, especially with all the new arrivals.”
“You expect me to agree?” Frances said. “Even broken and old, I can still kick anyone’s ass.”
“But you,” said Bill, turning his cratered head from Moth to touch the blinds with a stony finger, stare out at the sunlight outside. “You’d go.”
“Me?” Moth said, a bit surprised. “I have to stay if you are, obviously. Someone’s got to look out for you. I’m not leaving you again; I did that once and I’ll never forgive myself for it.”
“Moth,” Frances said, consternating, and she leaned in with a little less grousiness than she usually did. “That’s what I’m here for. I can handle this old codger. This is what we’re fighting for, Bill and I. He may not be able to think, and I might not be able to walk. Rest isn’t all bad for us. But you’ve got your whole life out there still. If you ever get the chance, you take it. You take it and you never look back. Because we’ll be fine. We have each other, and we’ll be fine.”
“Moth,” Bill said, and put an arm around moth, pulled moth in for a gentle hug. “If this goes the way you hope, don’t you stay a minute longer than you need to. You fly away. You go with the wind. And you write me a postcard from the sunny outside.”
Outro - Liberties
Liberty. Give me liberty or give me death. A choice easier said than made, and rarely by those who stand on such a precipice. How much freedom is worth giving up before it is no longer worth fighting for it? You can only fight if you are alive. How is liberty to prosper if those who would challenge the world for it drop like flies? Freedoms are rarely handed to you from above. They must be grasped, hand over fist, and held on to, and wrested back from time to time by those who brandish their might.
It takes only a moment’s dedication to become a martyr. It takes a lifetime of fortitude to guarantee liberty. I am not sure yet which I pursue. Death, or freedom. Perhaps for me they are the same. Until the last chains are shattered, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting liberally for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Light a Fire' 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!