Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Abusive relationships, Animal death, Violence, Kidnapping and Abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Homophobia, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs, Body horror, Alcohol Use, Electrocution, and Ableism.
Intro - Skip Stones
You are small, and your friend tries to show you how to skip rocks, bouncing across the surface of the water. It is more than a skill, you feel—it is an act of defiance, disturbing the black lake neither of you are allowed to go near.
You cannot convince them to jump more than once. Your friend pitches them with deft proficiency, skips them eight, nine times. Skipping stones is not enough for your friend. One day he dips his boots in the shallows; the next his hands. Nothing happens.
He invites you to swim with him, one day, and you refuse. You run home, hoping that he will chase you, but he does not. The night grows long and there is no sign of him. The next time you wander down to that dismal bank, there are letters formed of the red stones. They spell ‘Hello From The Hallowoods’.
Right now I’m sitting in a dark tent. There’s a table here, a set of folding chairs. All rather drab and artless. There’s a woman sitting across from me, although she does not know it. Her eyes are as cold as the spring air outside, her tongue sharper than the silver-winged crickets. She and I would not get along very well I think, for if there were stones to cast, she would throw first. The theme of tonight’s Episode is Stones.
Story 1 - Two Steps Sideways
Buck stumbled into the tent, and the guards waited outside. There were voices shouting across Fort Freedom. Something was up. Inside, Mrs. Wicker was seated at the Table of Freedom, in Rick’s chair. She was surrounded by several of her children, almost identical with their blond hair and hungry eyes. She held a baby in her arms.
“Come sit, Buck,” she said. “Jedediah, take your sisters back home. I need to speak with Buck alone.”
She passed the child off, and the children vanished into the shadows. Buck limped over to a chair and sat down heavily. One of Mrs. Wicker’s eyes was always staring into his soul, as surely as he had one.
“That’s Rick’s chair you’re sittin’ in,” Buck said. “He wouldn’t be none too happy if he came back an’ found you in it.”
“There’s going to be some changes around here, Buck. Rick’s been gone a few days, and all of us have decided—we don’t want him sitting in this chair anymore.”
“Whaddya mean?” Buck said. “He’ll get back soon. He’s been gone longer before.”
Mrs. Wicker leaned forward, clasping her thin hands on the desk.
“He’s a bad man, Buck—rotten to the core. Always has been. Remember when little Michael went missing? Your name isn’t Buck. It’s James. He just called you Buck because of your teeth. Poor thing.”
“I don’t know what you’re trying to get at, Mrs. Wicker. Rick… is mean, yeah. But he's strong. We need strong. This ain’t a nice place we live in.”
“Strength takes many forms, Buck. Rick arrived back here at Fort Freedom in the early hours of this morning. He’s in the hospital right now. He’s not doing well, James. He can’t lead us anymore. What matters is a different kind of strength—being strong in faith. And I don’t think either of you are very strong that way—I know about your visits at night to that tent of his.”
Buck looked up, wide-eyed. “Now that doesn’t…”
“Think carefully before you speak, James,” she said, sitting back. “Here’s what’s going to happen. Rick Rounds is leaving Fort Freedom. For good. That’s not up for debate. It’s been planned for a long time. Besides his temperament, he has chosen a sinful lifestyle that is not welcome here. Now I know he’s got influence on you James—everyone says you’re just as hopeless as he is, but I see things differently. I want to give you a chance.”
Buck stared at her. This couldn’t be happening. Rick had always been there. The awful, stony foundation that had kept Buck anchored to reality. With him gone, what was left?
“Mrs. Wicker, what are you saying?”
“If you repent to the Lord, James, and you help us get Rick out of here peacefully, then you can stay. You’ll be as welcome as anyone. Or, you can go with him, and see how long you two survive out there. But I think we both know you’d just be slowing him down.”
A flash of anger came rushing to Buck’s cheeks.
“You’d throw him out just like that? After all he’s done for us?”
Mrs. Wicker nodded silently, standing up. “You can’t wait to do what is right, James, or the time will never come. So. What are you going to choose?”
Buck left the tent with tears streaming down his face, making his way for the hospital building. It was little more than a cabin, really, but one of the few solid buildings they’d built in the new spot. It was a bit warmer inside than the tents and half-finished structures of the fort tended to be.
“Who’s there?” a familiar voice called.
“It’s me, Rick,” Buck called back, stepping through the beds to find Rick laid on a cot, clutching his arm.
“Geez, Rick. What happened to your hand?”
“They took it,” Rick grimaced. “That metal monster. It took my hand, Buck.”
“Musta hurt like hell,” Buck sat down on a chair by the bed.
“Still does. The doc keeps a whiskey on that back shelf, get it for me.”
Buck pulled himself up again and fetched it. Rick twisted the cap off with his good hand, and swallowed half the contents loudly. Sweat bled down his forehead.
“I’m gonna have more work for you to do, Buck. I’m gonna need some help over the next few days probably.”
“Rick, they’ve got…”
“A few days, yeah. Take a few days. Get better. Go right back out there. Gonna tear that devil man and his tractor apart. Bit by bit. You’ll see, Buck. They’re gonna regret the day they crossed Rick Rounds.”
“Rick, there’s been a few…”
“That umbrella he’s got, it’s something. Buck I know it’s something. When I held it I felt—felt like I was holdin’ the key to the world. If I could figure it out, I could get us outta here, get us all outta here…”
“I’m trying to say somethi…”
“Why’re you always interruptin’ me when I talk, Buck?”
“They’re not going to let you stay.”
Rick looked up at him in confusion. Buck had never seen him so pale.
“What are you talking about, Buck?”
“It ain’t me, Rick, I promise. It ain’t me,” Buck said, tears rising to his eyes. “They’re done with you leadin’ us. They’re kickin’ you out.”
“I own Fort Freedom, Buck. What kinda notions have gotten into your thick head?”
“Mrs. Wicker seems to think she owns it. And she never liked you.”
“Well,” Rick sat for a moment in silence, licking his lips. “She got to the boys too?”
“S’many as I’ve seen.” Buck would have reached out to take Rick’s hand, but realized he was on the wrong side of the bed. “Grumbling around camp is you’re obsessed. You keep going after these monster folks, and you got three good guys chomped up. And crashed two good rollers.”
“That’s alright,” Rick spat. “We dont’ need ‘em. We’ll go get that umbrella, and nobody will be able to say no to me again. Get my things together, we’ll take the truck.”
“I’m not…” Buck started, and Rick shot him a dangerous look.
Buck froze, as he always did in Rick’s headlights. The years of bullying, the cruelty that came with every tenderness, the orders and the commands. To wait any longer would cost him everything, he knew.
“I’m not going with you, Rick.”
“What are you talking about? Yes you are.”
“Mrs. Wicker is giving me—no. Forget her. I’m making a choice. You never treated me good, Rick. Any kiss from you comes with a kick. You know you called me Buck all these years ‘cause of my funny teeth? You never asked if I liked it. You’re the one who made ‘em that way. You don’t care about me. You just like having someone to boss around and hurt when you feel hurt. And I’m tired of being that person for you.
I thought I loved you, Rick Rounds, but I don’t know if you’re even capable of that feeling. And I’d go to the end of the earth for you, but I don’t think you’d take two steps sideways for me. So I’m done. And truth be told, I’ll sleep better knowin’ you’re gone.”
The bottle slipped out of Rick’s hand, shattering on the floorboards. Rick stared at him with a sort of stunned silence Buck had never seen before.
“You feel better now?” Rick said. “You know you wouldn’t last ten minutes here without me protecting you. I’m all you’ve got. I’m the only one who can even stand you. You wouldn’t dare walk out after everything I’ve done for you.”
Buck nodded, swallowed, and stood up. “I deserve better than you, Rick.”
He grabbed his cane and stepped away.
“Buck? You get back here right now. Buck? I’m warning you!”
Buck stopped by the door, and looked back at his oldest friend, sitting up on the edge of the bed, glaring.
“Goodbye, Rick Rounds.”
Buck stepped out of the hut into the sunlight, immediately finding Mrs. Wicker waiting expectantly.
“You did the right thing, James.”
Buck shook his head, pushing past her, and did not stop to cry until he was well and truly alone. In the darkness of his tent, he knew the world was changing outside. Like a heavy stone, Rick was falling away from his soul. At what cost, though? At what cost?
Interlude 1 - Ring of Fire
Dreamers, I am still disturbed by the arrival of Lady Ethel Mallory in these woods—but I suppose it is not the first time corporations have turned their eyes to this Hallowed ground. Before many of the great dark pines had taken root, miners came to delve into the Ring of Fire, now beneath the Central and Southern Hallowoods: a great circle of subterranean metals, stretching over five thousand square kilometers.
In fact, the roads built for that hungry project would later enable travel for some of the Hallowoods' modern-day inhabitants. It is ironic, of course, that the attention of your petty workers fell on the great circle of mineral deposits, instead of what was buried in the center. It is only human, I suspect, to miss the point.
We go now to one who, likewise, sees the trees, but not the forest.
Story 2 - Heavy Weather
Olivier flew through the air, the weather roiling in furious coils around her, as stormy as her own mind. What was she doing? The old man had been such a terror in the whispered stories at Downing Hill, a monster in the woods. Clearly, though, he was failing in his years, and he was clumsy. The girl had fallen off the geezer’s ghostly caravan, and Olivier wasn’t sure she should even be recovered. It was an awful lot of work just so Solomon could dole out a little more torture.
Days were passing, and it had taken Olivier several passes over their flight path before she found something unusual—a destroyed web and a disgustingly large spider crushed beneath a tree. There were large footprints stamping off into the woods—gargantuan feet that Olivier could not identify from the wildlife she’d read about. But there was a switchblade in the dirt beneath the torn webs, and although it wasn’t much to go off, it was better than nothing. Footprints—one set of boots, and lots of dogs—accompanied the giant into the forest.
Olivier sank down to the forest floor, pine needles catching in the embroidery of her cloak. The huge tracks led out of the trees towards what seemed to be a settlement. Large buildings with shattered windows stood, but no one was in sight.
What was she doing, Olivier thought? What was she hoping to get from Solomon... a good word? The books were valuable—Downing Hill was throwing their best students at the Instrumentalist for a chance to read the tomes on Solomon’s shelf. The Director still haunted Olivier’s dreams, and yet, if given the chance, Olivier would go back in a heartbeat. She missed the quiet and the smell of the pages in Downing Hill, afternoons spent drinking tea and reading and learning how to focus on the thunder inside her chest.
Angry storms boiled in her now, threatening to wipe out anything that stood in her path. She had to get back, and soon. It was a test, of course. That was all. Olivier thought it was unlikely the Director would just throw her aside, after all these years. This was about willpower. And yet… what if she’d meant it? What if Olivier could never go back? The thought turned her to ice.
In that case, Olivier thought, it wouldn’t hurt to be friends with the old misogynist, who seemed bent on taking these awful woods. And that friendship rested purely on Olivier’s ability to get the girl back.
Olivier reached out, feeling the weight of the air, and squeezed. The clouds responded to the call, gathering dark and heavy in the sky. As the first flurry of rain sailed down, and lightning arced in the distance, Olivier marched into the village. She could hear yelps and low growls—dogs, Olivier frowned. She’d always been more of a cat person.
“Come out now,” Olivier shouted, rounding a corner into a rudimentary main street. A sign on a battered building read ‘Find a Friend Animal Shelter’. “If you don’t, this will hurt a lot more.”
“Okay,” a rasping voice breathed, far too deep and loud.
From behind the animal shelter, a massive form rose into the rain. Beady eyes watched from sunken sockets, and large exposed teeth grinned eternally. The body was large, taller than the building, and bloated like a drowned corpse. Olivier held her ground, feeling the lightning dance at her fingertips.
“I’m looking for someone, slug. A girl, young, shaved head. Do you know her?”
“That sounds like Riot,” the monster croaked. “I’m Big Mikey.”
Olivier pulled herself into the air, gliding towards the ugly creature. The smell alone was noxious.
“You have five seconds to tell me where she is. Five.”
“Are you a friend of hers?” the beast said. It glanced around shiftily. Olivier noticed its gigantic clawed hands.
“You don’t seem very friendly.”
“Three.” Olivier let the lightning spark in her eyes, and crackle in her hands.
“I don’t like you,” the giant said, and almost as fast as Olivier could blink, it threw a rusted car at her.
The automotive missed her body narrowly as it sailed through the air, but the rush was enough to throw Olivier off balance. She lost control of the weather around her feet, falling to the ground with a thud that she felt in her bones. The rain soaked her immediately, and the giant came crashing around the building towards her.
Lightning arced across the sky, and Olivier yanked a strand of it down, grounded it in the giant. It screamed hideously, terror flashing in its deadly eyes, and it moved like a dinosaur from an old film as it thrashed. Olivier picked herself up and directed the wind towards it, trying furiously to push it back.
“Where is Riot?” Olivier screamed. The giant backed away, groaning and holding its eyes. Olivier could not make sense of its mutterings.
“Speak up, beast,” Olivier said, rising up towards its face and sparking her hands again. “Before I burn the words out of you.”
“They can’t… they can’t anymore…” the creature whined, the electricity shining in its eyes. Its batlike nose flared in terror.
“What are you saying?” Olivier flew close, wrapped in storm. She drew back a hand, preparing to strike.
“They can’t bully me, nobody can,” the creature said, eyes focusing on Olivier. “I’m Big Mikey now!”
A massive hand whipped out of the darkness, colliding hard with Olivier. The impact was devastating, ripping the air from her lungs, shattering ribs. She shrieked as she whirled across the concrete roofs, crashing hard into the ground beyond. The monstrous goliath came stumbling towards Olivier, and her vision blurred from the pain, but she threw a front of wind in its direction. It might have thrown back a human attacker, but the elephantine thing was not swayed, and it plucked Olivier up between jagged nails, and suddenly its rows of gleaming yellow teeth were close, far too close.
Olivier screamed, and sent a jolt of electricity flying into the creature’s maw. It roared, and she felt a tremendous rush as she was thrown, launched as if by a ballista. Olivier was flying, but not of her own power, and for a moment she was filled with fear. Not yet. She couldn’t be done. Not like this. She tried to pull cloud together, stop the descent, but only wisps of fog trailed behind her as she crashed into the trees.
Marketing - The Price of Adoration
Lady Ethel Mallory: This is Lady Ethel Mallory with the Botulus Corporation. Let’s talk about history. American history was not built on saints and evils, on swords and stones. American history was built on icons.
When I say president, you think of George Washington. When I say Cowboy, you think of John Wayne. When I say glamour, you think of Monroe.
You rely on figureheads, self-appointed heroes of the age, to provide a sense of history for us. But be careful, dreamers, which icons you choose to worship, which goddesses become the bedrock of your reality.
Many today carry the name of Valerie Maidstone like she’s some kind of martyr.
What does Valerie really represent? Look around you. Your life is good. What do you have to complain about? Would you really want to tear all this down, to live in the shadow outside?
There’s no more neon lights out there, no more elvis on the radio, no more waitresses on roller skates. That all lives on in here and in here alone. Destruction is what Valerie represents—a complete disregard for our history and our icons. Choose your role models wisely, my lovely dreaming community. There is always a price for adoration.
Story 2, Continued - Heavy Weather
Dreamers, I grow tired of interruptions, but perhaps it is good for you to hear them. Ethel knows about my messages, though I doubt she understands the magnitude of my broadcast. I wonder if she knows which of her messages end up mixed with mine. We return now to Olivier Song.
The moon was a thin sliver of white, a crescent that reminded Olivier of the Director’s smile. Like the Director, it was also impossibly cold and distant, and only watched as Olivier crawled through the darkness.
Years excelling in every class, every topic, every cruel and unusual test of strength. She might have pulled herself through the underbrush for minutes or hours, and she could hear the labored panting of the giant and its dogs somewhere in the far distance.
She came up beneath the roots of a blackened tree, sobbing quietly as she strained to piece together her ribs. Every movement was agonizing, and she realized with every inch that she had lost her second chance—one failure was a mistake. Two was a track record. And there was no swarm of ravens to spirit her back to Downing Hill this time. She was on her own, and if she died beneath this tree, she doubted Solomon would remember she was even gone. All this work, and for what?
Olivier was as empty inside as the library itself, and tears ran hot down her face. Crunch. Another rib yanked into place.
There was a flash of light in the distance, the unmistakable shine of headlights.
Olivier’s heart quickened. There was no telling what kind of stranger was driving in the night, but odds were it was better than being eaten by a hallowed beast and its hunting hounds. Olivier gathered as much force as she could, although her body ached from the exertion.
There was at least a mile, maybe more, to reach the road. She threw herself through the trees as fast as she could, hurtling towards the path in the distance. She could not give herself time to think, not just yet, but the clouds in her mind were heavy.
Clarity. Clear skies. You have to keep it together, she thought. You are in control. Just keep your balance.
The road arrived through the trees as Olivier’s last wisp of the weather flickered out, and she fell near the roadside. Not more than a thin cleared trail, really. In the distance, the flashing light told her that salvation was on its way.
Her vision faded in and out as she pushed herself up in the wet black soil. The headlights grew bright, blinding and blurry, and with a rush of air, the truck raced by and into the night.
Olivier could not muster the strength to rise again, and she lay down against the dirt. She was exhausted beyond belief, and her beautiful cloak was black with mud. The weather was gone, absent like the sun on a cloudy day. It was done. It was all done.
She heard the truck rolling back, and looked up to see it stopping in front of her. There were yellow boots in her vision then, and a soft, gruff voice was asking questions she couldn’t hear. She felt herself being lifted by a strong pair of arms, and a bushy grey beard was in her face, and she was being carried. If she was not so tired and angry, it might have been oddly comforting. Olivier realized she could not remember the last time she’d gotten a hug.
She was deposited gently into the back seat of a vehicle, and felt a hint of comfort as the door shut. She was safe, at least, from the teeth of the forests. She glanced nervously at the driver.
“...headed for the Scoutpost,” he was saying. He was a burly man, with eyes that shone a little strangely.
Scoutpost, Olivier thought. That cluster of simpletons was the farthest thing from home—and although Olivier hadn’t stuck around for long, it was possible they would still remember the blue-haired person with the cape.
It was at least a landmark, and if the trip took an hour or two, would afford enough time to rest.
“Scoutpost is okay,” Olivier managed to say, and realized there was someone else in the passenger seat up front, so small she hadn’t noticed. A slumped figure with frizzy hair. They seemed to wake a little as the truck began to roll onwards into the night, navigating the narrow gap between the trees.
Then Olivier caught a glimpse of the woman’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and Olivier’s heart froze in her chest.
“Oh, there you are,” said Zelda. “You’re Solomon’s little child... Isn’t it late for you to be out playing?”
Interlude 2 - Coming In Loud from Box Andromeda
Dreamers, I am easily distracted, as there is typically a universe of events happening in my peripheral vision. But, although it is a rarity, I’m hearing something strange. There is another broadcast, another voice in the darkness, speaking in dream the way I have learned to. It is within a Dreaming Box—let me find the one—Box Andromeda. Usually I cannot access those connected to a Dreaming Box, but there is one here who is different. Let us go there for a moment.
Ah, yes. We are in a space that exists in dream itself—a dark room where Valerie Maidstone is trapped in a prison of nightmare. There is someone else here...
Valerie: I see you back there.
Danielle: I can’t stay for long. Are you... Valerie Maidstone?
Valerie: Why, are you a fan?
Danielle: Not really. There’s not a lot of places to listen to your music. But my parents talk about you.
Valerie: Are you one of the tricks? They keep finding new ways to hurt me. Gotta give them points for creativity.
Danielle: No—my name is Danielle. I’m normal.
Valerie: Hi Danielle. This seems like a dangerous place for you to be. How did you get in here?
Danielle: I just… go where I want. I wanted to make sure you’re okay.
Valerie: I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty far from okay. Is there anyone helping you?
Danielle: No. It’s just me. I… don’t know what I can do.
Valerie: Can you get rid of the flies?
Danielle: I can try.
Valerie: Thank you. Do you know anyone outside, Danielle? Is there anyone you can contact? I don’t know how much longer I have here.
Danielle: No. I don’t know if I can get outside. I’ve never tried.
Valerie: So there’s… no rescue plan. No one’s coming for me.
Danielle: I’m sorry.
Valerie: You remind me of my daughter.
Danielle: Yeah? What’s her name?
Danielle: That’s a cool name.
Valerie: I thought so. I’m… not going to see her again.
Danielle: Don’t say that. Maybe you will.
Valerie: I don’t think she knows where I am. I don’t even know where I am.
Danielle: Box Andromeda.
Valerie: Oh... wow. That’s a lot farther away than I thought.
Danielle: I’m sorry there’s not more I can do.
Valerie: You don’t have to do anything. Can you just… stay with me for a little while? It’s nice to hear a friendly voice.
Danielle: Sure. Yeah. I can do that.
I’m losing their voices, dreamers, and Botco stirs like a swarm of insects in Dreaming Box Andromeda. They will not be in silence for long. There is little I can do for them, dreamers, that I am not already. This world is falling apart because of the involvement of my peers. Perhaps it is best to let the story spin on its own. We go now to two examples of this.
Story 3 - Binding Stone
“How do you know what they’re going to teach next week? Did I miss the handout for the study plan?”
Clara thumbed through an old book. Each page was printed with a single letter, but more elaborate words would appear as you focused on it. It was much more tiresome to read than your standard variety, she thought.
“They don’t tell. I’m just good at guessing,” Friday said, sitting on the rug by the fire with her legs crossed. The bookshelves of the small room twisted upward most improbably into a starry sky. ‘A Bibliotheca Est A Bellum’ was written in a tapestry between the shelves, and the desk by the fire was covered in strange objects.
“Is that your ‘magic power’?” Clara smirked.
“Magic? Really? Everything Downing Hill has learned is a science.”
“Ugh. You know what I mean.”
Friday glared at her, but there was less venom in her eyes than the night they’d met. “Your magic power seems to be annoying people who are trying to study.”
“I’m curious.” Clara folded her book shut, and fixed her glasses. Her ghostly dog nuzzled her foot, glowing dimly in the firelight. “Everyone here has some special thing, right? I see ghosts better than most people. Which I don’t think is that useful. You haven’t told me what you do.”
Friday looked over the room with an expression curiously like embarrassment.
“Come on,” Clara said.
“Luck,” Friday said. “Good luck for me. Bad luck for everyone around me, it seems. For my mother. For Olivier. Perhaps for you.”
“Thanks,” Clara said, looking at the odd collections that lined the shelves. “Do you feel… lost, in here? I’ve seen some strange things over the last few years. My parents, changing every day a little more. This ghost dog. Evil frogs? The instrumentalist’s music at night. I got almost drowned by a snail, and saved by your magic friend? But this place is… different. Is it even real?”
Friday laid back in front of the fire. “In a manner of speaking. The library is heavy. Secret books and cursed artifacts have gravity. Most of these things are delightful, Clara. They’d drive you insane to look at them, or they’d pull you into four dimensions. They’re all here, and Downing Hill is a pit in the fabric of reality. It sinks a little deeper with every strange item they add to its collection. I don’t think the Director minds. She’s changed as much as the library itself, I think.”
Clara left her chair, and went to sit with Friday near the fire. There was something carnivorous in Friday’s stare.
“You know a lot about this place,” Clara said.
“I would. I’ve lived here for years without a… a real gift. I need knowledge to survive.”
“Did you ever get lonely?”
“Loneliness is dependence; I don’t need anyone. That’s why I’m still alive,” Friday said.
Clara laid back beside her on the carpet. The stars in the false sky tilted slowly, giving way to glowing diagrams attached to constellations and planetary bodies.
“What are those?”
“It’s a map,” Friday said. “A directory, of sorts.”
She looked over, a sense of mischief in her eyes that Clara had not seen before. “Do you want to meet god?”
Clara wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly. “As in… die? No thank you.”
Friday rolled to her feet and turned to the table. Amidst books and gold boxes and a steaming teapot, there was a large black stone that sloped upward to a knifelike point.
“This is the Binding Stone. It used to be mandatory for new arrivals. Touch it once, it will show you who you have a covenant with. Touch it twice and you’ll plummet into insanity. It’s lots of fun.”
Clara approached nervously. “Covenant. What does that mean?”
“Seeing ghosts runs in your blood just as bad luck runs in mine. Someone put it there, at some point.”
Clara felt oddly aware of her own veins, the heart pounding in her chest. They felt less and less like her own, and she shivered.
“So some ancestor of mine…”
“Crossed paths with something terrible. Yes.”
“And touching that rock will…?”
“Tell you more,” Friday nodded. “You can do it while I’m here to stop you from losing your mind, or you can let the curiosity consume you until you come back here at night and do something stupid. Don’t do that.”
“I wish you hadn’t told me about it,” Clara grunted. The rock was deeper than black, glittering light like stars trapped beneath its surface. As Friday twisted the stone, the stars in the ceiling moved in unison.
“Will it hurt?” Clara asked.
“Yes,” Friday said.
Dogsmell paced over, looking up nervously. Clara hesitated. She had barely touched the surface of the secrets here—there was information in this library, almost certainly, that could shake her understanding of the world. She knew it was dangerous, but deep down, she didn’t want to leave, either. Because the knowledge here was power, and if she’d had a little power, she could have saved her parents. Saved Riot. Wouldn’t be helpless like she was now.
“I’ll do it,” Clara said, and at Friday’s gesture, put her hand on top of the rock. It was cold to the touch, but nothing happened. Clara looked at Friday, and Friday slammed her hand on top of Clara’s, slicing it against the sharp edge.
Clara cried out, and suddenly every star was watching her, and ice was pouring into her veins, and she was many places at once.
She was in space, floating breathlessly in the center of the universe, stars drifting like dust, the superstructure of galaxies stretched thin as a spiderweb.
She was face-to-face with a burning eternity, a reclaiming fire.
She was in a forge, cold against a blazing hot anvil, and the hammer that was falling against her was the tool of ages, a reformation of the fire in all life.
She was in a hive, a buzzing world of boxes stretching out in every direction, winding passages filled with office spaces, cubicles as homes for hornets auditing the debits and credits of the cosmos. Souls and spirits processed, manufactured, transformed, refined.
She was looking at herself in shadow, but her reflection was different—her eyes burned with the light of great industry, and her teeth were sharp, a devourer of worlds, and burning horns emanated in a crown from her head. At her fingertips were the souls of the damned and purified alike, and at her feet bowed all ephemeral things, begging for time that she could not afford to give, because costs and quarters and resources had all been allocated, planned in advance by committee and creed for a billion years and more.
“Syrensyr,” her fiery reflection whispered, and it kissed her, and Clara was on fire.
She was suddenly pulled back into darkness, a puppet yanked by her strings, and then there were just stars turning slowly overhead, and diagrams and flowing scripts, and a pale girl looking down at her with dangling braids.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Outro - Stones
Stones. Space is filled with them, much like your heart. We are all full of quiet burdens, dreamers, and heavy griefs, and yet it is our duty to carry them forward, lest we sink. And although it is tempting to rest, to let others help you shoulder them, there is no one you can trust with their weight.
No one asked for that.
And even if I wanted to, there is no one.
Not really, not anymore...
How did I end up so alone?
I suppose I am not really alone, dreamers. You can all hear me. My lilting voice echoing into your nightmares as you sleep. And if I cannot share the gravity of what I carry, well. I am at least grateful that you are there to listen.
Until we are all beneath the stone, dreamers, I am your loyal host Nikignik, bidding you safe passage in your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Safehouse', 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!