Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Abuse, Animal Death, Suicide mention, Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Implied child sacrifice, Child Death, Skin, Misgendering, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body Horror, Religious Violence.
Intro - The Price of Omniscience
You have no name, no eyes. Long gone are the days when you could enjoy the world. All you have now is omniscience. Was it worth the trade? All knowledge, pouring through your head like an ocean through an eggshell. If only you had known the weight, the terrible weight that you were asking for. How fondly you remember the days of simple ignorance.
Now, there is only one peace you know, and it is sleep. You lay against the cold corridors of the Grand Archive and slumber, and in your dreams, you see a forest. Black lakes, stretching out in twisted patterns; trees that watch, a stitched face. And every night, you hear a familiar voice say ‘Hello From The Hallowoods’.
Right now I’m sitting on a work table. It’s seen many horrific sights, and is now surrounded by the objects of its craft. There is harp in the corner now, with bone set in delicate white patterns. Its denizen is trapped, like a fairytale character, in this hopeless place. The theme of tonight’s episode is Towers.
Story 1 - Stayed Dead
Percy sat against the harp, idly hitting the strings every so often. It was a dumb instrument, and he barely remembered how to play—he’d been forced into so many music lessons.
Diggory was gone. The thought kept circling back in his mind to hurt him. ‘I am told,’ his father had said, ‘there was not enough left to feed the crows’.
Would Diggory in pieces look more like a shattered sculpture, or a torn blanket?
He tried to put the thoughts from his mind, but they were as oppressive as the darkness of the basement itself.
“Are you a girl or a boy?” a voice said. Ugh. Kids. The skinless boy stood in the shadow in the creepiest possible way.
“Boy,” Percy glowered.
“I thought so. Do you wanna play a game?”
“If it’s ‘I Spy’ I think I’m good,” Percy said.
Al stepped closer, hands clasped. “We could do baseball. I like baseball.”
“Oh boy.” Percy lifted away from the ground, feeling the new weight of the strings tethering him to the harp. Al was just as tortured as he was, he knew, but right now he needed space—and somehow, there was no privacy in this empty basement. From every wall, the rest of his dad’s victims whispered or gnashed their teeth, long past trying to cope with their reality.
“I’m going upstairs,” Percy said, and rose towards the ceiling.
“That’s not allowed,” Al whispered.
“It’s better than staying down here.”
“I miss grandma Zelda. She’d play games with me.” Al crossed his arms, and vanished.
Percy pushed through the surface of the ceiling, a moment of darkness before he reached the room above. A single window shed light on piles of boxes, carefully stacked, and larger objects draped in sheets. Percy shuddered. Old belongings, pilfered from devastated homes and dead pockets.
“Let’s pretend we’re secret spies,” Al said, suddenly poking up through the floor.
“Jeez. Warn me next time,” Percy said, and lifted up through the floor to poke around the room. Al followed nervously, his leather ties trailing across the floorboards like Percy’s harpstrings.
“You’re pretty young,” Percy said. It shocked him that his dad had done this to a kid.
“No I’m not. I’m almost eleven.”
“Eleven is young.”
“How old are you?”
“Oh jeez. I was twenty. I’m not sure, do you keep counting after you’re dead?”
Al shivered. “Don’t say that word.”
“Yeah. I don’t like it.”
“Okay. You know you’re… a ghost, right?”
Al glanced around with his lidless eyes, peering into a box. “Yeah. I guess so.”
“Whew. Good. That is not a conversation I wanted to have with you.”
“Hey, this is mine,” Al said, reaching into a box. Percy drifted over; a toy train lay on a pile of old clothes. Al tried to pick it up, but his spectral fingers passed through like light.
“Aw,” he said.
“Here,” Percy said, and put his hand next to the train.
He thought of Diggory, standing in the darkness of that winter storm, cute hair frozen in the wind, eyes flashing in the night. The way they had stood up to Percy’s dad. And a million moments before that—the forest walks, the quiet hours together in their room at the Scoutpost, finding a present for Violet before the Spring Solstice. Percy was never going to see them again, and that hurt—it burned in his heart and head and fingertips, seared his lips like a hot needle.
When he opened his eyes, his hand smoldered with white light, and he lifted the rusty train into the air.
“How do you do that?” Al asked, jumping a little.
“I don’t know,” Percy said. “Sometimes when I’m really happy, or sad, or miss someone, it works.”
“I miss my mom,” Al said.
“Yeah?” Percy said, sitting down against the stack of boxes. “What was she like?”
“She could be mean sometimes, but I liked her,” Al said, watching his bony little hands. They remained as transparent as ever.
“Maybe keep going?” Percy said.
“She took care of me when dad got lost—we kept waiting and waiting, but he didn’t find us again. We started going to church, but it was bad. Really bad.”
“You know what, it’s okay,” Percy shuddered. “I don’t want you to…”
“They said that I had to be the one,” Al said, crackling tears forming in his wide eyes. “To make god happy. Like Abraham and Isaac?”
“Jeez. Al, let’s not…”
“It hurt so much,” Al whimpered, “and the next thing I remember I was waking up downstairs in the dark. The bad man said I could go back to my mom this way, but she didn’t want me. She said I was dead. I should have stayed that way.”
Al’s hands sparked like birthday candles, and he sat next to Percy, curled in a ball.
“I’m sorry Al,” Percy said, placing the train in his hands and hugging the boy. For a few moments, they were both real, and Percy couldn’t help the tears rolling down his face. It was too much; it was all too much.
Eventually Al calmed down, and faded back into a flicker of light, and the train fell through him to the floor with a loud clatter.
Both of them froze as there was a creak from outside the room, and the door burst open.
Percy’s heart leaped into his throat. Diggory was standing in the doorway.
But it wasn’t Diggory, he realized. The stitches were all wrong, the patches of skin in different colors and shapes. This person wore a band costume a little too small, and their blank eyes swept across the storage room, but could not seem to see them. Another difference from Diggory, who seemed to see Percy almost all the time. Al began to sink, quaking, into the floor.
“Hi there,” Percy said quietly, and the intruder froze.
“Get back in the basement. It is where you belong. This is a room for storage,” they rasped.
“Or what?” Percy said, burning a little brighter. “You’ll break my harp? I don’t care.”
“Mister Reed will not be pleased!”
“What’s your name?” Percy asked.
“Leyland, don’t you have better things to do?”
“Everything must be put in the right place,” Leyland said impassively. “Boxes in the storage room. Ghosts in the basement room. Before the master gets back. He does not like to see us in the house, but he cannot care for the house himself.”
“So you’re not supposed to be in here either,” Percy said. Leyland did not reply.
“Can you give us a tour?” Percy asked. “I want to see the rest of the house.”
“I’ve never been on a tour,” Al piped up.
“Basement,” Leyland groaned.
“We’ll go back in the basement if you give us a tour first,” Percy said. “Better hurry. Dad could be back any minute.”
Leyland seemed to calculate behind blank eyes. “Alright,” they said, stepping into the room. “A quick tour would not hurt. It has been a while since I showed the grounds to a guest.”
Interlude 1 - The Court of the Faceless King
Attention, dreamers that dwell in the Northern Hallowoods. While you should always be wary of the shifting border of the Northmost Woods, with its trees beyond black, be careful if you spy twin towering pines standing like monoliths in the forest.
They may look like trees to you, but glance between them and you will see a bridge stretching off into seemingly endless darkness—and at the end, a fortress of obsidian stone. Its spires reach into a sky of emerald stars, and long have its halls been devoid of light. It is the court of the Faceless King—mad jesters and unseen attendants roam in its dark corridors, and in the antechamber where the green glass windows burn with light, the Faceless King waits on his throne. It is not a leader—a warrior to stoke the fires of the age—but a steward, a keeper of these Hallowed woods.
We go now to one who has seen the Faceless King.
Story 2 - The New Hector
“We should get moving,” Hector said, waking and rolling to his feet. The sun was barely shining over the distant trees, but he was already anxious. Wherever the trail of Jonah’s old truck was going to lead, he needed to reach the end soon, before he completely collapsed. They were headed towards the Scoutpost, and that gave him a little hope—it seemed like the place Zelda would go if she had managed to escape after all.
Winona, in all her wrinkled mystery, was awake already, and sat on a colorful blanket sipping coffee from a mug painted with constellations. She had spread a pile of facedown cards around her, and her curved blade lay beside her in its sheath.
“Sit with me, Hector.”
“Like I said, we…”
“Elena will be a minute. Sit.”
There was a groan from the van parked nearby as the junk collector’s daughter woke up.
Hector rubbed at his eyes and sat down beside the blanket. Winona examined him through the steam of her coffee. The dogs came bounding over, clamoring for attention; he scratched Jackie’s ears, and gave Heidi a polite pat. Her cracked, toothy jaws and pale eyes still gave him pause every so often.
Winona began to gather her cards, and they flickered like moths between her bony fingers.
“You’re an interesting one, Hector,” she said. “There’s more to you than just a scavenger, I think.”
Hector eyed the cards warily. “If you’re going to read my future, don’t bother.”
“Not just your future,” Winona smiled, shuffling the deck, and finally laying three cards facedown on the blanket. Hector stifled a chuckle. Lady, if you only knew.
“This card represents your past,” she said, and turned the first one over. Hector’s smile died as he noticed the image. There was an illustration of a man with a grey beard and yellow boots; his body was impaled by swords, a hand in the pommel of each one.
“Ten of swords,” Winona said. “An unexpected ending. A loss. Something devastating happened to you, and I am sorry. The memory will fade in time, but it will leave scars. You are no stranger to those.”
“That’s cheery,” Hector grunted, glancing away from the image.
She pursed her lips, and passed her palm over the second card, and it was faceup. A shrivelled face with closed eyes, wrapped in moss and lake weed. It seemed familiar to Hector, but it took him a moment to remember Jeffery Stewart, laid to rest in the bog.
“Death,” Winona said.
“Aren’t you supposed to give me something nice? Health, wealth, a new motorcycle?”
“Death is not always a literal card, Hector. This is the present. It marks the ending of a chapter. Rebirth into new life. Your life is changing. Perhaps for the better.”
He noticed her hand travel to the carnelian hilt of her sword, her eyes shut and flickering.
“You’ve travelled a long way. You’ve been hurt, and you’ve hurt others in turn. You’ve always kept going, always one more day. Where did it get you? Alone with your dogs, peeling dead things out of the bog, raiding pockets for trinkets. The old Hector lies with them now—beneath the peat. Who is the new Hector that walks on land?”
Hector blinked. “That’s the life story of just about everyone at the Dry Market, I’d reckon.”
Winona frowned, and placed her hand on the third card.
“Is that one my future?” Hector said. “I don’t wanna know.”
“You have not suffered for nothing, Hector. We see loss, we see life ending and returning in all its forms. You have been through much, but you cannot let it hold you back from your future. There will be an end to your journey.”
“With my luck, it’ll be in the bog,” Hector said. “Alright. Fine. Flip it.”
She turned it over, and frowned. A black stone tower blazed with green fire, lightning streaking through the stars and into its windows.
“The tower represents change as well. Usually… not the positive kind. Destruction. Upheaval. But at the same time, an opportunity to break free. To do something new.”
“Lovely,” Hector said, standing up. “Well. I feel enlightened. Thank you much. Good to know I’ve got death and destruction to look forward to. Pretty much par for the course.”
Winona shuffled her cards, tucking them into the bag on her belt.
“You ready to go?” Hector called.
“Ugh. It’s early,” Elena said, putting her face out the passenger window of the van. “But I’m ready.”
The last few hours towards the Scoutpost were quiet. Hector rolled on his motorcycle at a slow pace, letting the dogs in the sidecar enjoy the ride, and keeping an eye out for odd tracks. There was a point where the truck had swerved off the road. It was hard to make sense of the footprints; they appeared to have been washed out by rain. But the tracks led back onto the road, and Hector kept rolling too, Winona and Elena close behind in their van.
Finally, the trail took a turn down a small forest road where the branches of the trees had been tied back with strips of colorful fabric, and the van rolled up alongside him.
“This is it,” Winona called out of the window. “Scoutpost is ahead.”
Hector shook his head and followed the path, avoiding the worst of the mud. In the distance over the trees, he could make out a tall wooden tower—some kind of lookout’s nest. Before long, the trees gave way to a massive clearing, and Hector was momentarily impressed.
The quality was about the same as he’d expect from the scroungers up here, but the size was enormous. Towering walls of tree trunks and patchwork iron sheets spanned across the clearing. Lookout towers jutted up from inside like spires on a crown, and a large set of wooden gates were set in the center. Within moments there were dark figures peering over the rough-hewn battlements.
Hector approached slowly, Winona’s van rolling behind.
“Mornin’,” a woman in a wide brim hat called. “Who are you and what do ya want?”
“We’re looking for someone driving a red truck, tracked ‘em up this way. Would have arrived within the last day or two. You know ‘em?”
“You still haven’t answered my questions, have you?” the voice returned, and a weapon of some kind was set on top of the wall. A crossbow, he’d guess.
“Name’s Hector,” he called. “I find people. I’ve got business involving that truck.”
Winona opened her door and leaned out.
“Whoah now, stay in the vehicle, lady,” the voice returned. “You lot don’t strike me as the helpful kind—I’ve been warned about you. Why don’t you mosey along before I put a stake in one of you.”
“We’re the friends of Zelda,” Winona called up. “You know Zelda? Zelda Duckworth? She’s been missing a few weeks now. Any information about where she is, we’d appreciate.”
“I don’t think you heard me right,” the woman at the top of the wall said, and winched back her crossbow. Hector moved in front of his dogs, just in case. “I said clear off. Tell Mister Reed he’ll have to whittle my bony ass into a kazoo before he gets his hands on that woman.”
Hector glanced at Winona—was it the same house they’d been to? She nodded.
“Jonah,” Hector called. “Jonah’s the name of her son. If you’ve ever been in her kitchen you know she’s got a million pictures of him on the wall. She always makes sandwiches with watercress. Zelda and I go way back. And if she’s not here then I’m marching straight back to the home of that—Instrumentalist man?— to turn him into black market commodities. But if she is here, please, let us see that she’s okay.”
There was a long moment of silence from the top.
“Watercress isn’t even a nice thing to put on sandwiches, really. Alright. We’ll let you in. But first sign of trouble, you’re done.”
She turned, and seemed to gesture somewhere below, and the wooden gates began to roll open.
Marketing - Your Fault
Lady Ethel Mallory: This is a special message from Botco, brought to you by your very own Lady Ethel Mallory. This is your reminder that there is nowhere on Earth safer than your Dreaming Box. As unrest continues, we understand you’ve trusted the Botco Family with the responsibility to protect your bodies, sleeping in their Botco slumberpods inside each Dreaming Box.
Please keep in mind, technical malfunctions are incredibly rare—less than one in a million dreamers experiences an interruption of their dreams each year. The tragedy at Box Aries was the fault of the Stonemaids who cruelly sabotaged the equipment for almost one million dreamers; the fault of their family members and friends for not reporting them sooner. Your fault, for ignoring the suspicious people in your life right now.
If every Stonemaid were reported today, there would be no more danger. Report suspicious activities to your nearest Botulus Corporation Contact Terminal. Only you can keep your loved ones safe from the Stonemaid threat...
Story 2, Continued - The New Hector
I see Botulus Corporation customers wherever they sleep, dreamers. I believe these statistics are slightly biased. For instance, in several dreaming boxes, the nutrients dripped to dreamers have been contaminated with black rain. Those dreamers really should wake up. We return now to Hector Mendoza.
Hector parked his bike next to what looked like a white hearse; sure enough, the rusted red truck was there too. Immediately there was a small crowd of people in the courtyard—Hector counted seven spears and the ringleader’s crossbow. He held up his palms, and beckoned the dogs to be friendly.
“Quite the dog you have there,” the leader said. “Name’s Bern. Zelda made it back yesterday morning, she’s been in our infirmary since. We’ll let you visit, but the weapons and the pups stay here.”
Hector nodded. “Stay, girls. I’ll be back.”
“Thank you for allowing us in to your home,” Winona said. Elena climbed out of the driver’s side. Hector glanced across the Scoutpost—they were beginning to draw attention; unfamiliar faces cropping up in the windows from the housing units.
“Alright. Lead on,” Hector said, and the burly woman turned sharply. The sun was bright in the morning sky now, and as they crossed a large central yard with a fire pit in the center, Hector tried to remember the words.
Zelda, your son was torn apart by something I could never describe.
Zelda, I have some bad news. Your son could walk back from the grave twice, but third strike you’re out I guess.
Zelda, I think I’m going to walk into the bog and join the sleepers, because maybe somehow, someday, I’ll see your son again—and if not, well, there’s no point in walking anyways.
No, those were all wrong. A set of ramps led up to a second-story bank of doors, and Bern held one open for Hector. He took a deep breath, and stepped inside.
I’m sorry, Zelda. Your son is dead.
That was it.
Inside, the sun streamed in on a row of soft beds. The air smelled like rubbing alcohol and fresh flowers. The beds were mostly empty, but in one on the far side lay a woman who was almost too small to be Zelda—sleeping with her mouth open, snoring softly.
And in a rocking chair beside her bed, fast asleep, was a man Hector thought he would never see again. Hector froze in his tracks; his lungs stilled as if deep underwater. He tried to breathe, but his throat could not manage the motion, and tears welled in his eyes.
Elena shoved past him roughly, dashing over to Zelda’s bed and putting her arms around the old woman, who batted her in the head in surprise.
Zelda croaked something obscene as she woke up, but Hector couldn’t focus, couldn’t look away as Jonah opened his eyes, and looked at Hector.
His eyes were almost green in the morning light, and Hector couldn’t recall if he’d ever seen them quite that color.
And then Jonah was tumbling out of the rocking chair, and Hector was almost thrown back out the door as Jonah collided with him, arms wrapping around him. Hector put his hands in Jonah’s long grey hair, and kissed his forehead, crying.
“I missed you, Jones,” he said quietly. A soft round face looked up at him, glowing.
“I missed you too, Hec,” Jonah said, and kissed him, and Hector had never in his life wanted to melt into someone, to fuse lips and souls so that they would never be separated, until that moment.
Eventually Jonah’s head tucked against his shoulder, and he looked over to find Bern staring wryly. Winona and Elena sat by the bed, holding Zelda’s hands.
“I don’t understand,” Hector said. “How…? Where…?”
“There’s a lot to explain,” Jonah said, and when he looked up at Hector, there was a flash of emerald light in his eyes. “Lots and lots. I bet for you too?”
“Yeah,” Hector said, and sighed, his knees shaking. “I gotta sit down, Jones.”
He collapsed into an empty bed, head reeling. A weight had been cut free from his shoulders, so heavy he had almost been suffocating. The mountain was gone. He was at the top. For the first time in his life everything was beautifully, impossibly okay, and all the burdens of the past came crashing down around him. Jonah sat on the bedside, taking Hector’s scarred hand in his calloused one, and put an arm around his head.
There were questions. Oh boy, were there questions. A million hows and whys were opening up, and beyond them, the terrifying unknown of ‘what’s next’.
But Hector felt, in that moment, at peace. And before he knew it, he fell asleep.
Interlude 2 - All These Frogs
Dreamers, if you try almost anything, you will fail at least once. The things you care about doing are the things you should keep failing at. One of those tries, you’ll be surprised to find it works. You succeed. And you may find that instead of a past of failures, you see behind you a path that led so elaborately to this moment. There is no shame in failing if you are willing to try again.
There is one exception to this and that is Lolgmololg, that garbage-eater. I’m not worried that Lolgmololg is listening, because frankly I’m not sure they are smart enough to dream. Look at your temples and fortressses, buried in abyssal trenches, you idiotic fish. When have your uprisings and your amphibious monstrosities ever worked out? What do you hope to do now with all these frogs? You could go back to cleaning lake bottoms and be useful for a change.
We go now to one who has felled the thralls of Lolgmololg.
Story 3 - Cleaning Up
“Why would you even have this as part of a library?” Clara grunted, pulling on the silver rope. A flaming spirit came peeling out of the web in the ceiling, falling slowly to the floor.
“This branch? It’s a storage space for books that are dangerous historically, but not physically. There’s a distinction,” O'Connor sniffed from a chair on the far side of the room. Friday closed a book with a snap and placed it back on the shelf.
“What about the two-story painting of hell that eats people in the medieval history wing?” Friday asked. “Tim from last year is still boiling in a cauldron.”
“Decoration,” O'Connor smiled, checking his watch. He raised his cane, and muttered a word that Clara could not pronounce. A twinkle of light zipped from it to burst against the sleeping spider in the corner, a gigantic mass of shadow.
Clara eyed the spirit in front of her—a tortured husk of light with smoking eyes.
“Now again,” O'Connor said. “Focus. Connect. Reach their essence as quickly as possible. Ghosts are formed around questions. What is this one asking?”
Clara concentrated, closing her eyes, and placed her hand against its forehead. Her palm seemed to shine as she did so, and she felt a story similar to the rest. Flickers of young life in the library, curious wanderings in the halls, stumbling into the wrong room, snatched up by the spider.
“Are you ready?” Clara asked it quietly.
“Please,” it said, and her hand burned brighter, and it was gone into a flash of embers.
“Where do they go?” Clara asked.
“Anywhere but here,” Friday said, tossing another sheaf of charred papers into the garbage bin.
“Hopefully this teaches you both a lesson about setting library rooms on fire,” O'Connor said. “That soul weaver is a precious animal. One of a kind.”
“I bet,” Clara muttered, tossing the loop of rope into the air and snagging another spirit caught in the spectral spiderweb.
“If it ever makes spiderlings, I want one,” Friday said, poking her head up over the shelves.
“It’s not going to,” O'Connor sighed.
“Maybe I’ll get lucky,” Friday said.
Suddenly, there was a dark tremor that rippled through the room, shaking the stone floor. “Oh,” O'Connor stood up. He’d traded his elaborate silver spire for a prosthetic foot of carved wood, depicting dragons intertwined.
“We’ll have to return to this later,” he said. “Clara, the Director wants to talk with you.”
Clara stopped to look at him. Dogsmell materialized nervously from the shadow, eyeing the spider in the corner.
“I’m going with her,” Friday said, emerging from the labyrinth of shelves. “I’ll show her the way.”
O'Connor glared at her suspiciously. “It’s not like you to show interest in others, Miss Rescher.”
Friday’s eyes darted to Clara, and that worried her more.
“I’ll be fine,” Clara said. “Whatever it is, I’ll be back soon. I promise.”
Friday looked back to O'Connor, who shook his head.
“You’ll be falling,” he said. “Just for a moment.”
He tapped his cane twice, and suddenly Clara was hurtling through darkness, rushing into impossible depths. A moment later the rush stopped, and there was a buzz of warm light. The office was cozy enough; Clara had been here before. A banker’s lamp lit the room with a soft glow, a pot of tea steamed on the shelf. Black ravens perched in curious spots across the room, watching her with soulless eyes, and a bowl of peppermint candies sat on the desk in front of her. Beyond it was the Director, pitch black eyes magnified by her half-moon spectacles.
“Clara,” the Director smiled. Clara squinted. She wasn’t prone to conspiracy theories, but the Director seemed too thinly stretched to be human.
“O'Connor tells me you’re progressing well in your studies.”
“That’s more than he’s told me,” Clara said. She glanced around, but couldn’t see Dogsmell. One of the ravens croaked.
“We knew your aptitude for spirits would be valuable, but you have also demonstrated interest and focus,” the Director smiled. “These are good attributes for a student at Downing Hill to possess.”
“Thank you,” Clara said. “I’m doing my best. If this is about the spider, I’m so sorry…”