Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Bert, Beast the Bear), Suicide, Violence, Death + Injury, Character Death, Blood, Needles, Gun Mention, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror, Consumption of Inedible Materials (Cindy Lockheart, Depth Charges)
Intro - Something's Changed
You sit up in your bed and try to feel with every sense whether your world just changed. You are still a moment, and then there it is again. A tremor shakes the floorboards beneath you, and the deep roots of your home below that. Your things rattle on their shelves, a porcelain doll falls over. You rise, pull on slippers just as the warning bells begin to ring outside. The air in the distance is filled with smoke, and the tremors continue every few moments, ever so slight, growing stronger each minute. There is almost a rhythm, but it takes you until the fourth or fifth shock to place it, for it is tremendously slowed—two beats, like a waking heart trying to say Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I stand over a great tree. Its roots reach deep into the earth, and feel the impacts coming from a thousand miles away; its trunk is hollow, filled with dozens of rooms and courtyards. Its branches are lookout towers. Its residents gather in panic, and wonder exactly what it is that they have done. The theme of tonight’s episode is Faults.
Story 1 - Someone Who Can See
The shouting roused Danielle from her frantic dreams. She had spent the night wandering, searching for any of her friends in the nebulous field of static that was the arctic. But they had not slept; not one tonight. She worried it was not because of restless nights. Riot’s dreams had concerned her until they’d gone dark completely. Perhaps they had journeyed beyond her sight. It was whether they would ever journey back that worried her. She wondered if Nik would have been able to find them; to teach her how. She had too much to learn, and no one to learn from, now.
She slid her legs out of bed, and grunted as her muscles seized; she was slowly coaxing them to do her bidding, but they did not want to cooperate when it came to reaching down and maneuvering her socks. The best she could do was snag a boot and toss it at Clementine instead.
“Clem,” she said. Clementine groaned from the sofa on the other side of the room, and rolled over.
“It’s not morning yet,” Clementine grumbled.
“Something’s up,” Danielle said. Clementine rubbed at her eyes, seemed to register the bells ringing outside for the first time.
“Are they back?” Clementine said, and rolled off the sofa, tossed the blanket in exchange for overalls and her jacket, and ducked over to help Danielle get her socks and boots on. “Are they home?”
“I don’t know,” Danielle said, and pulled on her own yellow jacket, and grunted as Clementine helped pivot her into her chair, waited for a moment for the radiating pain in her back and legs to settle down into its usual dull thrum. “I don’t think it’s them.”
“Froglins, then,” Clementine said, and kicked open the door, let the heat in the room dissipate into the early morning breeze. “Those Fort Freedom guys?”
“Let’s find out,” Danielle said, and rolled herself forward and out the door. It was just before dawn, when the sky had begun to brighten but was still devoid of the sun. The air had a smoky autumn scent that made her grateful to not have Dreaming Pod tubes up her nose anymore, and the sky to the north was a black haze that loomed over the horizon. Waking up was painful, she was coming to find, but pain was better than the nothingness of sleep.
It was also loud. People shouted, ran from their doors across the Scoutpost courtyard, raised alarms and fetched their javelins. It took her a moment to realize exactly why the chaos was unfolding around her.
“Clementine?” she said. “Is the world supposed to be shaking?”
“I have no clue,” Clementine said, stepping around her. “I haven’t been here long.”
“I’m guessing it’s not,” Danielle said. Another wave rocked the Scoutpost, ever so slightly. A buzzing in the wheels of her chair, the feeling of the earth moving deep below. One that caused the growing crowd of Scoutpost survivors to quiet momentarily, seek shelter, before it subsided and the panic grew that much more.
“I’m going to go find Violet, see if she knows what’s going on,” said Clementine, putting her hand on Danielle’s shoulder to get her attention. “Don’t go far, okay?”
“No promises,” Danielle said, and watched Clementine go dashing up the nearest ramp into the second floor of balconies that ringed the courtyards, in search of Violet and Bern’s room. Danielle spun out into the crowd a few meters, listening for answers. All she heard instead were questions, spreading like a fire among the crowd as she made her way through it.
“Has anyone seen Zelda? You, have you seen Zelda since last night?” Virgil Kane was shouting as he darted through the crowd. Danielle had been a bit too preoccupied to take stock of the dreamers at the Scoutpost last night, she wasn’t sure.
“Is that Botco? Are they coming after us?” Lady Ethel’s former assistant was saying, still wearing a hair wrap and a blanket around her shoulders. Her personal bodyguard reassured her and squeezed her hand too much.
“If I didn’t know better I’d say it was a whole mess of Fort Freedom trucks rumblin’ our way,” added Buck, who looked bigger in his Scoutpost jacket than he did without it. “We showed ‘em what once. We can do it again.”
Danielle came to stop beside a child who looked stricken by a ghost; the red-haired boy who had been brought home from the library by Virgil.
“You okay there?” she said, and a face drained of blood turned towards her. He gave her a nod, and glanced briefly to his mother, who was a few paces away collecting the rest of the McGowan horde.
“Everyone,” a familiar voice called, and she looked up to the second story ramps to see Violet limping up to the railing, Bern helping her on her bad side. Clementine stood a few paces behind them both, with Valerie beside her. Valerie was in a jacket like her old one, a resolute look on her face. You chose a bad time to try and pull your act together, Danielle thought. Way to have ignored one of your daughters for months because you were so busy pining after the other one that you couldn’t…
“Please stay calm,” Violet called, and the crowd quieted a little to try and better hear what she was saying. “Everyone! Yes. There is a tremor. We do not know from what, exactly, but please let’s remember that we are a unit. Look out for each other. React calmly and appropriately. If there is one thing we have learned by now, it is that we can live through anything.”
“Miss Lockheart mentioned her mission might cause some quakes,” Bern called, holding Violet’s arm. “We sent them to stop a dangerous threat up north. Our very best people are up there right now trying to fix this. And if they can’t, then no one can.”
“So, please keep them in your thoughts, and hope that they are successful in that mission,” concluded Violet. “Please return to your shelters and stay ready for further instructions. Take care of each other. Look out for your neighbor. And whatever comes, we are all in it together.”
“Hey kid,” Danielle said, and reached out to poke Russell in the arm. “Push me.”
“O… okay,” he said. “Where to?”
“Back to my room,” Danielle said, and thumbed back across the courtyard. “I need a hand getting back into bed, okay?”
“You really want to sleep right now?” he said, glancing around. Another subtle shaking rocked the Scoutpost, set the bells to ring faintly above.
“Got nothing better to do,” Danielle said, and laid back in her chair as Russell pivoted her around. “Make it snappy.”
He wheeled her back across the Scoutpost court to her room, bumped the chair up the porch ramp, and finally into the door.
“You don’t look too good, kiddo,” she said, grabbed onto him with one hand, and propped herself up against the bed with the other, slid out of the chair and fell into bed.
“There’s smoke in the air,” he said, hands shaking. “It’s coming from where the Library is. That direction, anyway. What if there’s a problem there? I left Al there. He wanted to stay there, but… I hope he’s okay. If he’s not…”
“Hey,” Danielle said, and tried to inch her boots off her feet, accepted his help to peel them off again. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. I left people behind too, when I left Box Andromeda. It hurt to do it. But they wanted to stay, and I wanted to go, and it was the best thing for me. You can’t control their choices. Only yours.”
She watched him for a moment, and he winced. She’d gone the wrong route for advice.
“And he’ll be fine, I’m sure. He’s a ghost, after all. What can really bother him?” she said. “Now scram. I need to get some shuteye.”
“Weird time to sleep,” Russell said, and tried to carry the weight of all her words out. “But sleep well I guess.”
“Thanks,” Danielle said, and closed her eyes as the door was shut; tried to let the hum of panicked voices outside form a comforting white noise, the backdrop to let her descend into dream one more time. It was the only thing she could think of that would be useful, right now, to anyone. She didn’t know what was happening, but she knew someone who would.
Interlude 1 - The Heart of the Forest
Dreamer, if you dream in the northern Hallowoods, be aware that when you wake, it is to a trembling earth. Ontario is not known for its seismic activity, but it may be about to. For in the far north, a heart of great invention beats beneath the ocean, and it grows louder, louder, louder. You can feel it in the earth, now, and the rhythm is echoed by the countless black pines, roots pulsing beneath the soil. Press your palm to the earth and you will feel the heart of the forest.
It is close now. The precipice. We are in the winter, and the spring is deciding whether to come. Where to fall. If the heart is not stopped in its rhythm soon, it will reach a critical speed, the crescendo of its song, and your world will explode with life as a second cambrian age. The ground is ready; the trees bear the melody, and the world waits to see if a very few people now will be able to preserve any hope for your future before it is lost forever.
We go now to one who bears the weight of the future.
Story 2 - I Remember You
Mort hauled the crates upon his back, cargo straps that crisscrossed his frosted metal shell. It was not difficult for him. He was good at carrying things, and he did not tire. And he watched Cindy trudge ahead of him, wrapped in her heavy coat, one stumbling step at a time. He kept an eye on her at all times, in case she disappeared like a ghost and left him alone.
The ground crunched beneath his boots, and the world was like no place he had seen before. The ice here had been broken into big pieces by the thing in the ocean, jagged chunks turned upwards into sharp points like mountains. And then they had all frozen together again in the blizzard, turned the wasteland from a flat expanse of white into a valley of frosty sharp shapes. But it had stopped snowing, finally, and only a few flakes drifted in the breeze as they walked forward, always forward, to where the green lights burned on the horizon. Something else had started; a shaking in the ice, growing just a little deeper with each step of Cindy’s snowshoes.
“Are we there yet?” Mort said.
“You’ll know when we get there,” Cindy said, “because I’ll stop walking.”
“You stop walking lots of times,” Mort interjected, and Cindy stopped walking again to look at him. She shivered now without stopping, and had stopped looking at her little silver screens entirely.
“I am doing my best,” she said, and bit her own cracked lip. “We’re almost there, Mort. But we need to make good time. It’s already beginning. We’ve known this device was picking up in intensity for a while, yes? We knew it would reach critical mass at some point.”
“Credible mass?” Mort said.
“Very,” she said. “And you may have noticed that the blizzard is gone. Which is good for us moving fast, but it also means that the bloody ocean of evil below us will resurface soon. Now that it’s warmer. Now that it can break the ground again. That’s why we can’t afford to keep stopping to play ‘I spy’ or ‘look for fish’. I’m sorry.”
“We can keep walking, then,” Mort said, and waved his claw. “When you’re ready.”
Cindy looked away from him, not to the horizon, but beneath their feet. He looked down also, but could only see the inside of his suit, and could not bend over too well without dropping the crates.
“What is it?” he said. There was a sound like a thunderstorm somewhere far away or deep below them. And then Mort could see it; a shimmer of darkness that rolled beneath the sheets of ice for many hundreds of feet ahead of them.
“It’s here,” Cindy said, and took off her backpack, began pulling the pieces of her rifle from it and clicking them together. “Let’s move, Mort. Let’s move fast.”
She began to run, and Mort followed; the crates on his back bounced and clanked as he did so, and he wondered exactly how fragile they were. There was another noise, he was sure; a creaking as the ocean pressed up against the ice and tried to find a way through.
“Cindy?” he called after her, and felt the ice suddenly shake as a crack split through the surface ahead of them, branched out like lightning across the icy wasteland. He threw himself forward, and sent ice shavings from beneath his boots as he slid, scooped her up in his arm with the claw as he did, just in time.
He was reminded, briefly, of a swarm of a thousand dead seagulls shooting upward into the air, except the thing that rose from the ice was smaller, thin and then round, black as crude oil and trailed black droplets across the ice. It shuddered and flexed in shape until it finally took on a familiar one—a round exterior, a huge claw in one hand, a gauntlet in the other, a black dome of drifting mucus with nothing inside. It was Mort’s shape, except that a thick trail led from one of the boots back into the crack in the ice.
The other Mort raised a hand.
“Hello!” it said.
“I remember you,” said Mort.
Cindy pulled herself free from Mort’s grasp, and aimed her rifle right at the mort-shaped mass of liquid shadow, only twenty feet away. Sticky black tendrils writhed at the edges of its boots, and the ground continued to creak below Mort. Cindy did not wait; she fired her silver rifle.
For a moment, Mort could see the green glow of the sky through the hole her bullet had left in its glassy dome. And then it filled up again, slowly. Mort glared at the thing that was the Bear, that was Bert, that had reached out to send a man named Bartholomew Chum spinning to the bottom of the sea floor years and years ago, that had filled the last moments of his dying visions… whose shadow had loomed in his dreams beyond a beach of bones ever since.
“Barty, isn’t it?” said the bubbling mass that had stolen his shape. “You were always a friendly type, weren’t you? And the times we had together, Cindy. I remember you both so fondly. Let’s pick up where we left off.”
“Mort,” Cindy began, but before she could finish her thought, the vast body of Creep beneath them rose against the ice, and there was a creaking snap. A jagged line shot across the ice beneath his feet, and a moment later the left side of the horizon and the right tilted upward, flumes of water and ice flying as they did, to crush Mort and Cindy in the middle.
Marketing - Terms and Conditions, Page 768
So you’re after a surrender, is that it? On behalf of all Stonemaids. I don’t know how to explain this to a corporate puppet, but the spirit of freedom keeps on living, no matter how often you try to knife her in the ribs.
This is a negotiation, Dash. Allow me to present this customer service issue how we see it from Botco’s side, and then I’d like to open the table to your thoughts, questions, concerns.
By customer service issue, you mean imprisoning millions of people who want to leave.
This conversation is going to be much harder for me if you don’t listen to what I’m trying to say.
Alright. I’ll humor you.
So here it is. Terms and conditions, page seven hundred and sixty eight. This was written way before the Black Rains. I don’t think anyone could possibly have predicted how important this clause would end up being.
While the Happy Dreaming Family Member is under the care of the Botulus Corporation, it is the duty of the Botulus Corporation to take every precaution related to the safety of the Happy Dreaming Family Member and their protection from hazards while under the stewardship of the Botulus Corporation, including but not limited to the function of the Dreaming Visor, Dreaming Pod, Dreaming Box, other Dreamtech, transport between inside Dreaming Boxes by vehicle, automated drone, or internal organization mechanisms, internal passage via exit halls or emergency chutes, the quality and purification of processed food products, dreaming garden nutritious waste recycling, liquids and medications, hygiene, intubation or catheterization, and full body hydrobath dream submersion available for premium members...
The Botulus Corporation must protect its Happy Dreaming Family Members from external threats to their safety and well-being including but not limited to radiation, carcinogens, floods, fires, hurricanes, lightning damage, pests, nuclear winter, any terrestrial or alien life, and militarized anti-company efforts. The Botulus Corporation reserves the right to utilize all measures available in mitigation of these threats, including high power laser technology, automated security drones and weaponry, internal boards appointed by the company for the purpose of problem isolation and review, and emergency measure lockdown or evacuation states to be enforced until such a time as the threat is resolved.
As you can see, this was an emergency measure…
And conveniently according to your company, this emergency hasn’t ended in twenty years.
It’s not convenient. It’s just true. The blackwater contaminant has been detected in every major source of freshwater. It’s affected almost all life outside to some degree. No one can hunt, plant vegetables, or grow crops without facing the risk of contamination. To let anyone back out there would be a gross neglect of our commitment to your safety. The agreement you signed has nothing to do with profit. It’s because we care about our customers, and we want to keep you from making a bad decision. Possibly your last.
We have people on the outside. They live in constant fear of you hunting them down.
Because they are in awful danger, Dash. We never force people to join the Prime Dream. We only operate with customer consent, like any company does. It’s not a good life they have out there. Can you really in good conscience tell our Happy Dreaming Family that they should leave the safety of their Dreaming Pods for that?
A man should get to decide how he’s going to die.
Does this platitude also apply to women and nonbinary people?
We only get a few days on this earth. And some of us have decided we don’t wanna spend our last years dreaming to death and getting dumped in a body garden. I want to see the sun again. Face the future on my own terms. I want the real world back.
We’re only trying to keep the people in our care alive.
You call this living? I’m one of the lucky ones because I’m not locked in a metal coffin deep underground somewhere, unable to wake up or move my body. I’m lucky I’m not a kid who was taken out of their mother and put into a life support shoebox and strapped into a Dreaming Visor so their parents could dream they were holding them. We aren’t trying to destroy everything you’ve built. We’re not saying everyone should leave. God knows the kids who were born in here have never taken their first steps, let alone try and fight to survive. We’re only saying, the folks who want to go, knowing all the risks it entails, should have the right.
Dash, I know you didn’t see this when you joined, but you signed a deal, and we are committed to your safety just like everyone else's' now. This is our job. Unless you can find some legal way out of that, I’d like to start discussing ways to end this crisis that won’t further endanger our Happy Dreaming Family.
I’m not quite done. I was in touch with a witness, who’d agreed to testify about some experiences that might change your outlook on this. Please. Bring him to the studio. Let him talk.
Who might that be? If you’re trying to talk with Mr. Botulus, I’d like to remind you that I am the one he’s put in charge of resolving this issue. Directly.
No, it’s not that old reptile, but it’s someone I bet you’re familiar with. Bring me Ralph Campbell.
Story 2, Continued - I Remember You
If only they knew, dreamer. Millions upon millions trapped within those silver boxes, where they cannot hear my voice. If they were to wake, dreamer. If they were to dream true dreams.
We return now to Mort.
Mort’s armor strained at the rivets. His giant claw was dug into one wall of ice, and his gauntlet held against the other. There was nothing beneath his feet; the two walls of ice led down twenty feet into a black liquid that was not the ocean at all, but Creep, boiling hungrily. It was Creep that kept him pinned between the two gigantic masses of ice, drove them harder together with each moment, trying to crush him.
“Cindy, I’m breaking,” he said, and felt the metal strain as he kept the glacier on each side from pulverizing the both of them. Cindy had her arms around his dome, and she climbed up onto his back.
“Keep us up, Mort,” she said, and shifted her weight across him, knelt on his shoulder as she went for the crates on his back. “Just for a moment longer. You’re doing very well. You remember what we talked about?”
“Don’t go,” Mort said. “Please. We came all this way to do this mission.”
“Yes,” Cindy said, and there was the sound of clanking metal. He dug the edge of his claw into the ice, pushed back as the ocean surged and the twin glaciers pressed closer. The black ocean beneath was full of mouths, rows of teeth traveling like serpents across the roiling surface.
“Come on down,” Creep called from below, in a hundred voices. “The water’s fine!”
“Mort, there will be no mission if this monstrosity survives,” Cindy said, and pulled something heavy from one of his crates. “The heart is on the sea floor. Where the compass needle spins. You’re the only one who’s going to be able to go down there and survive, and if you do, this thing can’t be in the way. Not this time.”
“Hey!” Mort shouted to the churning ocean far below. “Let us go! You’re being mean!”
“Mort,” Cindy said, and tapped the glass with her hand. He looked up to find her with a knife in her hand, a device full of trailing wires in the other. “I’m going to put an end to it, alright? There’s going to be a very few moments after I go down. Get as far away as you can. Take shelter. You are our chance, now. Our chance for everyone. I’m taking half the charges here with me. The remaining payload should still be enough.”
“Come with me,” Mort said. “Don’t leave me here. You’re my friend. We were old friends. Why not just drop the bombs, or…”
“Because the bombs need to be inside that thing when they go off,” Cindy said, and sighed, pushed her frozen hair away from her frostbitten face, put a glove against his glass dome. “You are a good friend, Mort.”
Then she cut one of the cargo straps that crossed his metal body, and was ripped off his shoulder as it fell, plummeted with the crate into the dark ocean below. He saw her many times in that moment.
Standing behind Rizwana’s chair as they made their plans, a hand on her shoulder.
Trusting her wife’s safety to him, again and again, with every dangerous expedition in pursuit of salvation for their country and for all humankind.
Receding into the horizon as they sailed into the far north, and left her behind without a goodbye.
Odd, he thought, that he had died the first time they parted without a goodbye. And now, it was her, falling away from him, screaming furiously as she fell deep into the dark ocean below, and a thousand sticky needles of dark matter rose to embrace her, and the ocean swallowed her whole as it had once swallowed Bartholomew Chum.
Mort screamed, and kept screaming as he flung himself upwards from where he was pinned, slid up twenty feet to get caught again as the two mountains of ice slid closer. They had him by the shoulders now; he was caught in the narrow canyon, hoped that it would be enough.
And then there was the explosion. For a moment, the world was white, the light that he dreaded. And then slowly, the sound and color came back. Fire blossomed deep in the water below, a sound like cracking lightning, and a horrendous shriek that echoed up around him as the ocean churned and seethed and screamed.
The impact sent water flying up twice his height, and immediately the pressure of the two glaciers released, and he sunk his claw desperately into one to stay afloat as they tumbled back into the sea, rocked on the surface. Water came pouring back as Creep sank deep into the water, and the ocean of churning life became one of still black water.
The two cliffs of ice fell back to become two great pieces of land, drifting on the water’s surface, and he stumbled to his feet as they rocked and ground against each other. And the green fire that burned in his eyes also burned in the sky far ahead of him, to lead him in the right direction.
He missed Yaretzi. He missed Polly. He wanted to go home, to write the names of people who came into the hotel down on a little paper. I have learned who Barty was, he thought, but what if it’s come at the cost of Mort?
But there was a fire burning beneath the ocean, and it had taken Cindy, and Creep, and with it all his friends. He had come too far now to turn back. He shouldered the last crate, and began to walk forward over the calming ice. He knew, deep down, that it was only a little further now. It had begun with watching the fishes at the bottom of the sea, and that was where it was going to end.
Interlude 2 - Creation, A Mirror
If creation is a mirror for the gods that fashioned it, then it is a shattered one. On this side, it is an imperfect reflection, and one must wonder if it is a curse that the face of god is so distorted by the glass, or a blessing that we may never know the full shape of it. There are cracks in the surface, and through them you might catch a glimpse of a sliver of the shadow behind.
This is the mirror through which the darkness looks. A thin pane, a fragile plane, and surrounded on both sides by anguish. On this side, life indescribable, for all we have to show for our existence are our empires, and we are desperate to do something, to leave something behind, to show the universe that we did not end as quietly as we began. And on the other side, nothingness. The void that takes everything from us, friends and lovers and gods alike. You are mortal, and so caught between the indescribable and the eternal. I am sorry that these fragments are of your lives.
And I am no different, I think. I told myself I was. That I would not shape your destiny, nor lay a heavy hand upon your future. Simply guide your thoughts, your dreams, a little. Always watching, never interfering. But I have. And Mort is closer than he realizes now to the heart. He will be the first to reach it, I think. He is only here because I woke him. And if harm befalls him, look in the mirror and find the face of the god responsible for it.
We go now to a splintered face.
Story 3 - The Third and Final Visitation of the Phantom Station
Diggory walked through the polar wastes as through the desert. The wind had died down to a low breeze that carried occasional flakes of snow up from the ground, tumbling sideways through the air. But they stalked on. The razor edges of their fingertips were chipped from clawing their way out of the ice, the thread that bound their skin together brittle. The charms that preserved their old flesh were beginning to come undone, struggle under the constant attrition of the arctic wind. The horizon was green ahead of them, the flame of the northern lights burning brightly, and the pulsing of the heart hummed beneath their feet.
They wished there was another way. Any way. Percy was gone, and with him all their love. Cindy was gone, and with her their past. Mort was gone, and with him their friend. They were alone, except for all the voices in their head, except for Irene Mend, who had always lived just inside their eye, watching, waiting for her moment. Patiently guiding them north to their destruction, to desecrate the Hallowed world.
They felt it first, a shiver that ran up their frozen back beneath the spiked leather jacket. The dampening of the crunch of the ice beneath their boots, and the green lights of the sky dying as darkness overcame them.
And in the darkness, a single light. Red. Flashing. The silhouette of a tower loomed closer in the night sky, lighting up the frosted winds with crimson.
“Welcome back to the show,” said the Phantom Station. “We have a return caller tonight. How are you, Diggory Graves?”
“Not now,” Diggory whispered. Darkness. Light. Darkness. Light. The Phantom Station’s flashing gaze was not one red light, but a cluster of dozens together, dotting the shape that was almost a radio tower when it stood still. “I have nothing to say to you.”
“The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one, Diggory,” said the Phantom Station. “And you are in an impossible situation, aren’t you? Please, share with the audience.”
Diggory stopped, and glared up into the darkness, to where the tower stood. They spread their hands of black blades.
“You want to speak,” they said, “of what I am going through? Before me are two directions. The way I walk leads to my death. Not the end of this body but the end of me. But if I walk this way then everyone lives. The heart ceases. I have friends whose lives are plagued every day by the dead and by the changing life in the forest. I can give them a world that is safe. A world like the one I remember.”
“And behind you?” goaded the station.
“Behind me does not exist,” Diggory said, and ground their boot into the ice. “It can not. I can not live with myself if I go back, if I tell them that this mission of mine failed. That I abandoned it. It is what I was made to do, and I cannot run from that any more. Huntington Waites hunts. Cookery Potts cooks. And Diggory Graves was made to die. If I go back, Irene will never let me rest, as long as she is a part of my spirit. She will always be fighting to destroy me.
“When we spoke last, it was about the pressures and expectations of others,” said the Phantom Station, a little closer now. “It sounds like you are burdened. And you have been carrying these burdens a long time. Do you feel this pressure, Diggory? Do you feel yourself beginning to break?”
“Yes,” Diggory said, and looked down at the ice, sank to their knees. “The life of everyone I know rests on me. Those who I have not already let die here in the North.”
“There is a way out,” said the Station, looming close now, as tall as the night sky, many crimson lights blinking softly. “I have offered it to you now twice. This will be the final time we feature you on our show, Diggory. Many fires burn within you, and yet you are one flame. We, too, are many flames.”
First one spirit lit aglow, drifting near the phantom station like a tangled kite. And then a second, and a third, and dozens, a holy host that drifted in the wind, surrounded the station like a choir of angels.
“What of my friends?” Diggory said. “If I do not destroy the heart…”
“Do you truly believe that destroying the heart would save them?” said the Phantom Station, eyes sizzling. “Is that what you tell yourself? Or is that what this Irene whispers in your thoughts to draw you closer to it? The world is blessed by the heart, and even if it stops, do you believe it will undo what has been done?”
“I do not know,” they whispered. “I think not.”
“Join us, Diggory. Join our audience. Free yourself from carrying the weight of the world. Irene’s spirit cannot escape us in here. She can not hurt anyone else. And your last days, like those of all your friends, will be peaceful.”
Diggory Graves stared up at the lights, all focused on them now, turning their world as red as blood. Spirits filled the sky like stars, and they raised their hands to the dark tower. Their black tears rolled down their stitched face and stained the snow.
“All I ever wanted was not to be lonely anymore,” they said. “And now…”
Their words were cut short, as they were punched in the face.
Immediately, the crimson eyes of the Phantom Station and the accompanying darkness were gone. It was dim, and cold, and barren. A green light flickered on the horizon, and the ice rumbled beneath them, and somewhere distant there was a sound like rolling thunder. And in front of them was a green man. It punched them in the face again, and they fell backwards, rolled once across the ice and to their feet again, spread their claws.
The person standing in front of them was not unlike a froglin, in fact it may very well have been. The primary difference was that a froglin was four feet tall on a good day, and the frog that stood before them was six and a half. Its bulging eyes and head sat upright over a long body of sculpted muscles and powerful thighs. It stood perfectly still, and wrung its hands, and gulped as it stared at Diggory.
“Who are you?” Diggory said. “What are you doing here?”
The froglin gulped. It remained very still, as if waiting for them to forget that it was there.
“I was… I was…” Diggory said, and searched the sky for the Phantom Station’s blood-red lights, but it was gone. They exhumed dust from their lungs, and took a step toward the froglin, which hopped quickly back.
“I asked who you are,” Diggory said.
The froglin croaked a word that sounded like Grug.
“Grug,” Diggory said. “Did you follow me all the way here?”
Grug stared at them with those unblinking yellow eyes, and shivered. That might have been the cold. Diggory took a step to get around them, and Grug took another step back to remain in their way.
“Are you trying to stop me?” Diggory said.
“Do you know where I am going?” said Diggory. “Did Rothogroth send you? Or are you here of your own accord?”
Grug polished a yellow eye with his tongue, and squinted at them, and shivered again. It seemed a pitiful creature in this cold, turning its blood to sludge and freezing over its eyes if it went without blinking too long.
“Grug, go home,” Diggory sighed. “You and I are both born of the Black Rains. I understand it may frighten you for this to end. But we will both still be here, in a fashion, when it is done. My people will live. And so will yours. I am going to do something I may not come back from, Grug. But in warm waters in the spring, I hope you will live. You and everyone in the woods I have come to call home. Live long, and well. Go home, and make all of this worth it.”
Grug gulped again.
“And,” Diggory added, and flexed a hand of knifelike fingers, “if you do not get out of my way then I will kill you very quickly.”
Grug stared at them, wide-eyed. And then took a bandy-legged step towards them, wobbling on its overlong feet, and hugged them with gangly arms. And then the drown priest was bounding with lengthy steps back the way they had come. And for Diggory, there was only one direction left, and all the world to carry.
Outro - Faults
Faults. I would like to think, dreamer, that what happens in the universe is nobody’s fault. That events transpire as some predestined course intended, and misfortune and blessing visit each in equal turn as part of the chaotic miasma of events. But we live in a universe. It is full of worlds, spinning from stone into embers. And each one is shaped by our choices. The end arrives because it was not forestalled, and doom is brought upon by our negligence, and sometimes those in power have used it for ill gain, and the only way to stop it would have been a long time ago.
What could have been done to stop me? If I had not intervened, if I did not continue to, I think it would doom you one way. So if I do nothing, would it have been my fault? Is it my fault now, if despite my efforts, it still fails? If it does, dreamer, then you will not have long left to think of me as your loyal host, waiting guilty for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'One Flesh' 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! Until next time, dreamers, when you skip across parking lots and sidewalks, don’t step on a crack. You might break your mother’s heart. But there are cracks everywhere, whether you can see them or not. And she’s getting used to it by now.