HFTH - Episode 31 - Anchors




Intro - Sinking Feeling

You realize something is wrong as soon as the communication array goes silent. “Riz?” you ask. “Ruth?” They do not respond. The spotlights in your suit illuminate little, but the readouts on the inside of your glass helmet tell you that you are drawing near to the site. There is no light in these depths, but you know there is more than darkness around you.


For a moment, you detect motion, massive—as strong as a current. Your lights illuminate something then, and you realize you are approaching a structure beneath the water. Deep blackness pours from its doors, spilling like oil into the ocean. You adjust your silver-plated claw, hoping you can do the rest on your own.


Then you are gripped by something gigantic, and there is a sharp impact in the ribs of your suit, and there is water rushing into your dome. You are thrown wildly off course, and crash into the sea bed, and you can hear the thunderous vibration of the heart in the water—beating hello. Hello. Hello from the Hallowoods.



Theme.


Right now, I’m sitting in a silver box. I’d hate being in here if I had a corporeal form, but since I exist in a different reflection of reality, I am instead only irritated by the spider that lives here. She dwells in the tunnels of her chambers, wearing heart-shaped sunglasses in the dark. Out here, her devotees are questioning how detached they have become from their hopes and aspirations. The theme of tonight’s episode is Anchors.




Story 1 - The Roof

Brooklyn panned through the notifications. Curious. The visor for Valerie in Andromeda had delivered erratic readings for eighteen minutes. Valerie was still tightly held in her coffin, of course, as with the rest of the dreamers. If it was just a connection error, as the tech reps seemed to think, then there was no point in bothering the Lady with it. The Lady had enough on her mind—and Brooklyn had a lot to think about as well.


The Lady was elated, and it was rare to see her in such good spirits. They’d witnessed the start of a new business opportunity the other night on those overhead monitors, and Brooklyn knew at least a little of what was going on. Apparently the Lady’s meeting with Mr. Reed had been productive. A conclusion had been reached. Riot would be in their hands soon, along with… something else. A method or set of instructions, the Lady hadn’t been entirely clear, but the purpose was transparent. How an old man in the woods had done what a team of Botco’s brightest could not was still a question—but he chilled Brooklyn to the bone.


She would be happy to have Riot safely in custody, and return to California. Riot would be the calm to the sea of troubles that plagued Mr. Botulus. Fires of rebellion burnt across the Prime Dream, and the Stonemaids gained traction every day, despite Botco’s best efforts. The tragedy at Box Aries had damaged the image of the company itself—for twenty years the safekeeper of society, now unable to protect its very own user base. One of Brooklyn’s own cousins had been hurt in the attack.


Brooklyn did not quite understand why they had not simply taken Riot back already. There was a further nuance, she felt, and the Lady was keeping it close to her chest. One thing she knew for certain—Riot’s location was strictly need-to-know, and Mr. Botulus did not need to know.


Then there was the Marco situation. Brooklyn woke up and took off her glasses, rubbing the afterimages from her mind. Marco paced by the window in the lounge, staring out.


“Can you… calm down?” Brooklyn said.


“Sorry. Right.” He sat down, and immediately started bouncing his knee. There was a restless quality in his eyes, a weariness in the lines of his smile.


“Is everything alright, Marco?” she said.


“Nothing’s wrong,” he said with a smile, glancing off to the side. “Could use some fresh air is all.”


“We’re not allowed to leave the box.”


“I know.”


Brooklyn considered returning to her project list, but there was something in his demeanor her instinct said not to ignore. Truth be told, she needed a break as well.


“Have you been on the roof?” she said.


“Can’t go up there without shutting down the defense grid.”


“There’s a platform up there for private use. Come with me,” she replied.


She shivered as they stepped into the cold sunlight—it was technically spring, but the wind had yet to recognize that. Or maybe it was always cold in this part of the world. Marco stretched and walked to the edge of the railing. Brooklyn couldn’t help but notice the curve of his back, armored vest and all. She winced in the bright light as he leaned against the safety rail.


Beyond, black trees and winding waters spread out across the horizon. The forest floor loomed a thousand feet below, and she kept her distance from the edge. The platform was at least shielded from the wind, and likewise from listening ears.


“...does any of this sit right with you?” Marco said.


Brooklyn blinked. “What do you mean?”


“Valerie Maidstone’s daughter is in the house of… some old guy? I can’t even make sense of what I saw on those monitors. Does he have ghosts? Are ghosts a thing? Why are we cooperating with him? Why aren’t we marching in there and taking her back so we can all go home?”


“He’s valuable,” Brooklyn said. “I’m not privy to the details, but he is. That’s why the Lady has to negotiate.”


“I just don’t understand. And even if Valerie said some things about Botco like twenty years ago, it doesn’t matter anymore, does it? We won. Does that girl deserve to be there with that man? I mean who knows if she’s still alive, the sensors die at his house…”


“Marco,” Brooklyn said, bringing herself closer to the edge, until he was looking at her directly. “You’re not here to make these calls. You’re here to protect The Lady. And me. And do anything else the Lady asks. That’s all. And if I were you I wouldn’t breathe a word of this out loud. Inside the Dreaming Box, it’s all freedom of expression, but out here they will replace you instantly if they think you can’t be trusted.”


“I know. And I can be trusted. I’m just confused. I took this job to protect people, and it doesn’t feel like I’m doing that at all. Doesn’t any of this craziness bother you? Do you see the real world at all through those glasses?”


“Marco, stop.” There was an old feeling bubbling through the cracks in Brooklyn’s veneer. She grabbed one of the straps on his armored vest, as if pulling him down to earth.


“You can’t do this... the questions. This is the world we protect people from at Botco. This is the world those Stonemaids want to put us all back in. It’s insane to think about. I can’t stand it. But you get that. And if you get replaced, I’ll be facing all this alone. Please keep your head down. This is going to be over soon and we can all go home, and I’ll be scheduling press conferences again, and you can go back to… wherever you belong.”


Brooklyn put her head against his vest, and he did not pull away. She felt an arm drape across her shoulders; she breathed in the slight odor of his body armor.


“Orion. Box Orion, LA,” Marco said. “One of my partners lives there.”


“Partners?” Brooklyn said. It wasn’t surprising, necessarily. She supposed there was a lot they hadn’t talked about. She’d been so busy.


“Yeah. Is that…”


“It’s good,” Brooklyn said. “Is this alright?”


“Yeah,” Marco said, looking out at the forest. “We’re good that way. It’s hard to know when you’ll see people, with all these missions and secrets.”


“I know it. Travelling with the Lady is a whirlwind.”


“I’ll do my best to… play it safe. You’re right. We’re almost done here.”


“Thank you.” Brooklyn wasn’t sure why, but she planted a small kiss beneath the buckle of his helmet. “We should get back to work.”


She descended the platform into the darkness of the Dreaming Box, Marco in tow. She had a lot to think about, and he was too free for his own good. In situations like this, it could get you removed, or worse. She hoped it wouldn’t come to that.



Interlude 1 - R.V. Ruth Esther Barnes

If you are lucky enough to find it while travelling in the Northern Hallowoods, you may come across a curious landmark. A ship, once a sturdy research vessel, now trapped in the midst of towering black trees and creeping soil. Its green hull glimmers in the sunlight, and its satellite tower shines over the treetops.


Faded letters on the side read R.V. Ruth Esther Barnes, a great explorer of steel named for one of flesh and bone. Inside, you will find little that remains of the crew, and moss has grown over the pilot controls and tables of notes and maps. It is a monument to failure, and I am conflicted, dreamers. If it had succeeded, there would be more of you alive, a longer moment in the sunlight. But it did fail, and everyone aboard this ship met a terrible end, and the heart kept beating above the arctic circle.


Now the dark forests grow, the land turns black and then colors beyond black, and what was once the Hudson Bay stretches out into endless forest and shuddering mountains, a place within a place. And, for all its changes and tragedies, it feels like home to me. We go now to a former crew member of the R.V. Ruth Esther Barnes.



Story 2 - Free

Mort followed behind Polly and Yaretzi, and with each step the forest around them became a little darker. The trees were like him, he thought, but much less friendly. Bert the seagull crowed at nothing in particular, sitting on Mort’s shoulder as they hiked. The forest floor reminded him of the sea bed, and the sun glimmered through the tops of the trees.


Polly seemed nervous, a little fire in his eyes whenever he looked around. His floral suit was torn in places, and he stabbed the ground with his umbrella with each step. Yaretzi was more wolf than woman at the moment, ears laid back and sniffing at the air.


“This place reeks of death,” she hissed.


“I’m no fan of the good old Garden either,” Polly sniffed. “No offense, Mort.”


“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Mort.


“Is it worth explaining to him?” Polly sighed.


“He will be alone someday,” Yaretzi said. “He deserves to know about his past.”


“I wanna know,” Mort said. He was not sure if this was entirely true.


“Well. As worlds face their cycles of growth, species tend to wipe themselves out after a certain technological level of progress, or by factors outside their control which they have not sufficiently developed in order to counteract. Ironically, extinction occurs by either too much progress, or not enough...”


“Simple terms,” Yaretzi said. “You are hurting my brain, and he doesn’t have one.”


Polly shook his head. “Mort, you are dead. Normally, when people die, their soul—we’ve talked about souls, you remember those?—it goes away.”


“Where does it go?” Mort asked.


“Processing, then refinement, but that’s not important,” Polly shrugged. “You are a special case. Your fire has been altered so that it is no longer useful in any way. A long time ago, there was a very great evil called Marolmar.”


Evil seems a bit much, dreamers. He was particular, and creative.


“What is evil?”


“Hohoho, we’re not going to even start with that one. Try to stay on track, Mort. Marolmar made machines. Terrible machines. One of them spews out this stuff.” Polly pecked a fleck of bark from a passing pine.


“Trees?”


“The black stuff in the trees, Mort. It’s in the water in your helmet. It’s in the ocean and the rain and the soil, and that infernal seagull. It’s sickening, practically impossible to get rid of, and ruins whatever it touches.”


Polly flicked the piece of bark into the underbrush.


“It’s not even predictable! Change for change’s sake! An accelerant for extinction and the growth that follows, but it’s devastating for the soul business. Marolmar is gone, and good riddance. But his playthings survived, and here you are.”


“I’m Marolmar?” Mort tried very hard, but all the words he had just heard blended together. Polly shook his head.


“Close enough,” Yaretzi said. “The important thing is, you’re here. And you’re free.”


“Free,” said Mort.


“I know you know what that means, you lummox,” Polly said, ducking under a tree branch. Mort walked through it, cracking it in half.


“You don’t owe anyone anything,” Yaretzi said. “You can do whatever you want. Pick flowers. Learn how to paint. There’s a lot of nice things in life, Mort, and you can do all of them.”


“That sounds nice,” Mort said. He hadn’t really thought about what he’d like to do. He had enjoyed the walks with his new friends, the sounds of the birds, the sun that shined on his dome. Thoughts from their last conversation still troubled him, though, and he had not forgotten the beach of bones that he saw each time he dreamed.


“Who is the woman I see in my dreams?”


Polly looked at him curiously. “I always wondered what you had to dream about.”


“What is she like?” Yaretzi said.


“She says things like ‘it’s the end’. And that it’s okay. And other stuff. Sometimes I forget.”


“Maybe she was someone you used to know,” Yaretzi growled, clambering over a fallen log draped in mushrooms. Bert squawked, and there was a rustle in the trees beyond. A flurry of black, shiny birds stirred from a tree in the distance.


“I knew it,” Polly muttered. “We’re being followed.”


He flipped out a large book from inside his suit jacket—it didn’t make sense to Mort how he kept it in there, his clothes fit so perfectly—and opened it to a bookmark. The words he muttered were strange ones to Mort, but one by one the ravens fell out of the sky.


Yaretzi went loping through the trees, and Polly dashed after her with his umbrella in hand, and Mort followed them both. He plodded into a clearing where sharp black trees reached up to the sky on all sides. In the center, a tangled mass of ravens writhed in the pine needles, twisting in and out of each other. Orange sparks burst from around them, holding them down like chains.


Yaretzi grew out her claws and teeth, and Polly pointed his umbrella at the pile of birds.


“If you’re capable of forming words, you have a few seconds to do it,” Polly snarled. The eyes on his umbrella blinked open, burning with red fire.


“You have made a great mistake,” it cried in a myriad of voices. “If I meant you harm you would be dead.”


“Bold words for a flightless bird,” Yaretzi hissed, and stepped forward, licking her gnarled black lips.


“Yes, that attitude will get you nowhere,” Polly smiled, and the umbrella snapped open, and fire poured into the air towards the terrible form.



Marketing - A Little Game

Lady Ethel Mallory: Oh my dear Nikignik. I wanted to let you know I’ve been busy. You don’t know the half of what I’ve got going on.


Every time I hear your flickering noise it reminds me how much I’m going to enjoy dealing with you. We’ve been doing a little investigating. You’d be surprised how much information we have access to at Botco. Funny how much old research makes its way into the technologies of the future.


I don’t deal in superstition. My eyes have been opened to what power tastes like. It tastes like your blood.


See, my advisors tell me that you’re some historical obsessive, picking up old words and appropriating them for your propaganda. But I don’t think so. I don’t know just what you are, but any rational human being would have given up by now. The name Nikignik is scrawled in terrible handwriting throughout history, you know.


Do you know anything about Cairo? I wonder how they accomplished that. Nothing my science teams can’t replicate, I’m sure. Keep running while you can, you old dog. I’ll mummify you alive sooner or later. That’s all. Live with that. Go back to your barking.


How many nights do you think you have left? It’s like a little game. I’ll give you a hint—it’s less than you think.



Story 2, Continued - Free

It is most rude to bring up Cairo on my broadcast. That was a mistake. We all make them, and leave them in the past where they belong. And your threats mean nothing. I would not fall for that twice. I would say we should revisit your mistakes, Lady Ethel, but the biggest one of all is the one you are making now, in picking a fight with me. We return now to Mort.


The tendrils of fire wove around the clearing, snaking towards the shadow in its center.


“Wait,” Mort said.


Polly glanced at him, and with a flick of his wrist the bolts of fire froze in place, hovering.

Mort kneeled down next to the creature; it stared back with dozens of black eyes, heads and wings of ravens blending into shadow and fire.


“My name is Mort,” said Mort.


“I am the Omen,” it crowed.


“Will you be my friend?”


Bert eyed it cautiously, and the Omen seemed to think for a few long moments. “Yes.”


Mort sat down next to it. Polly snapped his umbrella shut with a huff, and the balls of fire vanished into smoke. “Why are you following us, pet?” Polly asked.


“I am no one’s pet,” the ravens screamed.


“Oh yes you are,” Polly said, crouching down beside Mort with his umbrella across his lap. “You’re a perverted little thing, watching us this whole time. You came from a book just like this. Someone made you, and not for very good reason.”


Polly waved his tome, and the ravens’ eyes followed its movements.


“Why are you following us?” Yaretzi growled. “Answer him.”


“That book,” the Omen cried. “My master wants books like that, it is on our acquisition list, she would give you many shiny things for that one.”


“It’s not for sale, you magpie,” Polly said, standing up. “Company property. If I see you eyeing my things again, I’ll sautee you for a nice dinner and feed you to the starwolf.”


“That sounds delicious,” Yaretzi grinned.


“That’s not very friendly,” Mort said.


“Mort, this isn’t a friend. It’s a thief. You understand me, bird? Be still.”


The pile of ravens stopped shuddering, and pooled like tar on the ground.


“Good,” Polly said.


“Are you letting it go?” Yaretzi drooled.


“Go eat a deer or something. We’ve made our point. And I don’t want things to get messy in front of Mort.”


Polly snapped his fingers, and the sparking chains vanished. The shadowy form rebuilt itself, pulling together in the shape of a person. It was tall, deeper than the blackest shadows, and flickers of fire beat in its heart and in the eyes of its composite ravens. The feathers gleamed with otherworldly greens and purples in the sunlight, and the dark mask of its face was almost human. Polly shrugged and brushed off his jacket.


“If you ever change your mind,” the Omen said, “you will be expected at the Downing Hill Public Library.”


It broke into a swarm of birds, spiralling into the sky and disappearing over the distant trees.


“They will know of our presence now,” Yaretzi grunted.


“We’re not hunting a librarian,” Polly said, shaking his head as if to clear it. “Might even be worth a visit when we’re done here.”


He began to march deeper into the black pines, and Mort followed, examining his claw hand. It was a tool, but Mort was not. He was Mort, made of Marolmar. Mort, who went swimming once. Mort, who had friends and liked fish. Mort, who petted seagulls. With every step, Mort knew they were getting closer to his purpose—but when it was done, then what? He would have to figure that out when it was time. He liked his friends, and didn’t want them to go. Out of all the things he could be, alone seemed like the worst one.



Interlude 2 - The Boy in the Corner

Right now, dreamers, I should be saying something grand about the weights that bind us to reality, the connections we rely on to understand our place in the universe.


But I am not.


Right now I am sitting in a dark basement. It is lightless in so many ways. Mangled loops of wire dangle from a ceiling pipe. The walls are covered in instruments. Each one contains a soul, too afraid to try and break its own chains.


And in the corner, there is a boy. He has not heard himself referred to in that way enough in his life. For a moment, ever so brief, he felt free. A single thread tying him to someone he cared about. Now, there are many strings, bleeding into his arms like veins, strung into a harp that was not built for him. He believes he is really alone. That there is no one left, and that no one is coming.


I wish for all my might that I could tell him anything else. But he does not dream, and I have no voice except to those who sleep to hear me. There is another boy, in the darkness, smaller and with no skin. They trade a few words, but there is no cheering our ghost in the corner. For him, an anchor is an impossible weight, and if he could break all his strings, he would.


We go now to one recently freed from his binds.



Story 3 - Greater Storms

Ricou sat in the bubbling water of the hot spring, burning red in the thermal flame of his own vision. Warmest of all was his lover’s small body, poised in the water next to him.


“You’re looking at me,” Nolan said.


“What of it?”


“I’m not used to that.”


It was true enough. If Ricou tried to see him through the blurry lens of his normal vision, there was nothing in sight. Nolan was not invisible, most simply did not have the right eyes. Ricou liked what he saw with his.

He put a webbed finger beneath Nolan’s chin and lured him in for a kiss. “You should get used to it. You are beautiful.”


Nolan smiled, and Ricou decided that he had never pulled a treasure from the bog quite as precious. The snow fell in flurries around them, melting in the water of the hot springs and blotting out the warm light of the cabin beyond. Ricou felt a strange sense of peace up here in the Shuddering Peaks. It was his domain, in a way—it celebrated his steps, welcomed him with its slopes, made him feel at ease with the fins and gills that made him abhorrent to the world below.


Down beneath the cliffs, the forest stretched out for endless miles, too dim to clearly see. Other forms moved in the far distance—several night-gaunts, drifting between the trees in search of loose travellers.

“I’ve never asked you this before,” Nolan said quietly, floating alongside him. “And I don’t want to offend you. But what… how…”


“What am I?” Ricou asked. He’d expected it was coming.


“I’ve never met anyone like you,” Nolan whispered.


“I was not always ugly.”


“You’re not ugly,” Nolan breathed. “That’s not what I meant.”


“I am hideous,” Ricou hissed through his vents. “I was only a child when I went swimming in the black water. It poured into my lungs like honey, burned in my eyes and on my tongue. I was frightened by these changes, I could not go back to my family or my friends. They treated me like a monster, and I saw myself the same. I forgot who I was. I met more people like me over time. People of a changing world that I was now a part of.


I had nothing when I met Barb, and he offered me a cure if I could best him at cards. I saw him cheat, but I could not change the outcome. Almost thirteen years I served as his guard dog, lurking in the mire, collecting trinkets from travellers. Out of all the people I met, only you and one other even tried to speak to me.”


Nolan nodded, and Ricou could feel the man’s slender arms wrapping around the ridges of his shoulders.


“I’ve done a lot of things just to survive, too. I understand.”


Ricou nuzzled back against Nolan, and tried not to flex his dorsal spines.


“I do not regret the time I spent in these dark places. No other path would have led me to this moment.”


“Yeah? You like this one?” Nolan said, close to what remained of Ricou’s ear.


“Immensely,” Ricou grinned, looking out at the forest below.


Nolan rested his chin on Ricou’s shoulder. “You waiting for something?”


“Can you feel it?” Ricou said. “The forest is heavy. It is a living being, it bleeds like us. And it is aggrieved. Illness festers in it, out there. The blizzard was only the beginning; we will see greater storms. I would usually hide in the swamp mud and wait for it to pass, but this cabin will do instead. I wish to keep you safe.”

“I can look out for myself,” Nolan whispered. “I’m hard to find.”


“Not for me,” Ricou said. “I can see your fire for miles.”


They were quiet then, and Ricou could feel the little man’s heart beating against his back, and he watched the canopy of the woods. How far away, he wondered, would he have to be to hide from the storm? The cold air and the deep forest meant little, he thought. His world was cast in fire, and what little burned for him, he wished to keep.



Outro - Anchors

Anchors. We go through this existence looking for connections—weights to keep us from falling off the face of the earth and into the universe, to focus our minds and tether our hearts to our surroundings.


I must be orders of magnitude above your existence, dreamers, but even for my kind there is purpose. Unanswered questions. Risks and rewards, love and great loss. Even I, at times, have felt… adrift. Falling from one great wave into the next, unsure of my bearing or course.


Right now, I feel, my anchor is here. In the shifting pines that rise across the Hallowoods, in the fireflies that glow at night above the lakes. I know it is only memories that linger in the winds and waters, but memories are better than nothing, are they not?


Content to be your anchor, your binding tie to the cosmos, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting immovably for your return to the Hallowoods.



The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Competition, 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!