Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Animal Death, Parental Loss, Guns, and Emotional Manipulation.
Intro - Grasping Root
You are an infant, but your heart is old. Your great limbs and needles, thickets and wilderness have only burst from the earth in recent memory, but aeons of design and dark intent burn in your spirit, a seed of malice as ancient as the stone. No one challenges you and walks away; you punish them with grasping root, with reaching branch, with the strange and ravenous life that stalks beneath your boughs.
None of them anger you as much as the old man. His footsteps are poison, his spirit a charring fire, and he has shut you out, claimed your ground as his own and denied you entry. Every day your roots squeeze tighter against the shield, your trunks grow higher to blot out his sunlight. You will show him the error of his ways, crush his house and his instruments, feed on his bones. You will make sure the last thing he hears is “Hello from the Hallowoods”.
Right now, I’m sitting in a rocking chair, and… someone is sitting down in it.
Right now I’m standing on a balcony beside a set of rocking chairs. From here, you can see a courtyard with a fire pit, survivors of this eternal forest rising to complete their morning rituals, and beyond it the fragile fortifications that keep them alive. Those sitting in the chairs are contemplating a goodbye. The theme of tonight’s episode is Walls.
Story 1 - What You Can Get
Zelda was just a customer, a friendly face at the market, but if Elena had learned anything from her life scavenging it was that you took what you could get. If you were out of rope, you sold chain; if you couldn’t buy something, you made it almost as good. And if you found yourself without a mother, well, you found someone else to occupy the hole in your heart.
Elena rocked gently in the chair beside Zelda. Winona sat on the other side, watching the morning fog beyond the Scoutpost walls with her usual cloudy stare.
“So the house is gone,” Zelda said.
“It’s mostly underwater by now, yes,” Elena said. “We might be able to salvage some boxes for you, comb the shore. I did save a few things for you too.”
She reached into her bag, fishing beneath her collection of knives and working compasses, and pulled a small packet of items wrapped in burlap cloth.
“You sure you weren’t planning on selling these?” Zelda winked as she took the parcel into her lap, and fumbled with the strings. Inside were a few collectible spoons, a little silver watch, a pair of wedding rings, a ceramic flamingo from the mantel, and a number of polaroid photographs.
“Oh thank you,” Zelda sighed, and thumbed through the photos. “That’s us on the way up. There we are fixing up the house. There’s old Dexter. Speaking of which, did you get my shotgun?”
Winona poked Zelda in the shoulder. ‘Jonah probably has it, but you take it easy for a while. You can barely stand up on your own, the last thing you need is to be scaring the people here with your gun and your attitude.”
“I don’t have an attitude.” Zelda rolled her eyes, and put a hand out by each of her friends. “Thank you both for doing all this. Not giving up on me. I thought I was going to die.”
Winona sighed. “Of course. We cannot let our friends disappear to… all this.” She gestured vaguely to the forest beyond the Scoutpost. “Besides, you have Hector to thank for the tracking and all. It’s the details I don’t see, sometimes.”
“Hector’s thankful to you too,” Jonah said, stepping up the ramp and leaning against the railing, a tin mug of coffee in hand. “Morning, ma.”
Zelda opened up her arms. “Come get a hug from your mother.”
Jonah went for the hug, and Elena shifted a little. It was done. Zelda was found and safe, after weeks of worrying with Winona and the others. She’d almost given up hoping that they’d find her at all; people had a habit of vanishing up here. Friends, sisters, and mothers could be gone in the blink of an eye, but just this once, she’d gotten lucky.
“Winona, when are we leaving?” Elena asked.
“Soon. This morning,” Winona said, sudden clarity coming to her. “It’s a long ride back to the Dry Market. I’ve got a shop to move, and I’m sure your father is worried about you.”
“Worried about his wares, more like,” Elena said. “Zelda? I’m so glad you’re okay.”
The frizzy-haired old woman turned to Elena and squeezed her hand. “Of course I am. Grandma Zelda pulls through.”
“I guess you won’t be coming back to the market much anymore,” Elena said.
“Hm,” Zelda said, sitting back. “Maybe not. But you come on up and visit anytime you feel like, alright? And bring me watercress from the Baxters or none at all. I’ll always be glad to see you.”
“And what of me?” Winona said, and Zelda batted her in the arm.
“You too, you old crow.”
“Better a crow than a flamingo.”
“Pfft. Flamingoes are smart birds. They stay where it’s warm. I coulda done that and saved myself some trouble.”
“I’m glad you came up this way,” Elena piped up. “I’ll have to visit, though I doubt dad will let me have a day off for a while.”
Zelda smiled. “Tell your dad you were helping an old lady. That’s customer service. If he makes a fuss let me know and I’ll ask to speak with his manager.”
“I’ll do that,” Elena said.
“Zelda, dear, it’s good to have you back. Congratulations on surviving the bane of the northern woods. From the sounds of it, none of us will have to worry about him very much longer. We’ll be back sooner or later.”
“Make it sooner,” Jonah said from the rail. “Any friends of ma’s are welcome here, I’m sure.”
“Of course,” Zelda smiled, and folded her hands in her lap, staring out across the courtyard. “Stay safe now.”
Elena gave Zelda a last hug; perhaps a little too long, and followed Winona down the ramp.
Winona’s van was in the walled lot with the rest of the vehicles—the rusted hearse, a vandalized campervan, Jonah’s red truck, Hector’s bike. Elena frowned at Winona. “You’re not going to say goodbye to the Mrs. Keenes? Or the rest?”
Winona shook her head as she rolled back the cloth awning on her van, and packed up her supplies. “I don’t like goodbyes. Feels too permanent. I prefer to show up to a place without warning, and leave just the same. But if you’d like to see your new friend off, feel free.”
“I don’t think she gets up before noon,” Elena said, glancing at the campervan. “It’s alright. I have a feeling my dad won’t want to miss the end of the Instrumentalist. Who knows what’s in that house of his.”
“Mm,” Winona said, opening a door and clambering into the passenger seat, tossing the keys to Elena. “You’re driving. I have some consulting to do.”
Moments later they were rolling across the court for the front gate, and Elena waved over the wheel at Zelda as they passed; Hector was stumbling out the infirmary door, and watched them leave with a curious look. The metal-bound doors creaked open, and they were off into the forest path, tree branches tied back with colorful scraps of fabric.
“Are you going to help her? Riot?” Elena asked after a long while. Tivali had come up from the bed in the back to sit in Winona’s lap, staring at Elena with unblinking green eyes, and the ornaments dangling from the rearview mirror clinked together as they rolled across the uneven earth.
“Maybe,” Winona said. “The Instrumentalist is… jealous. Everything he has, he’s stolen. I don’t want him to get too close.”
“Did you know?” Elena asked. “How their rescue was going to go?”
“No,” Winona said. “Pieces, here and there, but I hoped they would be part of a better picture.”
“I guess we’ll have to tell the others the Friends of Zelda are done,” Elena said, changing the subject, although it was also unhappy. Despite the break from her routine, the scouting and the meetings and the long drives had paid off. Zelda was alive today.
“Maybe not,” Winona said.
“What do you mean?”
“We should stick together,” Winona said, laying back against the seat. “Zelda’s not the only woman who’s gone missing, you know.”
“True,” Elena said, and a heavy feeling sat in her chest as the narrow trail opened up, a line leading south. “You mean, we’d try to find other people?”
“Someone’s got to look out for us,” Winona closed her eyes. “Besides, you’re fun to have around.”
Elena nodded, and smiled to herself as she drove. You took what you could get, sometimes. An honorary grandmother with a shotgun, or a job as an unpaid chauffeur for a woman with a bad sense of the future. Not your first choice, necessarily, but they’d do in a pinch, and that was what mattered in the end.
Interlude 1 - Watchful Things
It was a common line of thought for the people who lived before the black rains that if the apocalypse happened, they would go north. And the apocalypse happened, and many did. They had no idea what they were about to meet. New evolutions of life, the dead who would not stay buried, and a land vanishing to rising water and black forest.
The trees of the Hallowoods are watchful things, and as easy to anger as their master. If you cut off a branch, they will cut off your arm. What you burn will grow back thicker the next day. And if you attempt to install a ground ward to keep them at bay, they will seethe and fester in their wrath until they shatter it like concrete. If you dare to enter this proud forest, be wary of viewing it as lumber, lest you end up fertilizing new saplings. Needless to say, this has been a nightmare for settlers across the Hallowoods.
We go now to one who is bad at carpentry.
Story 2 - The Diplomat's Dilemma
Violet woke up to the rustle of her wife’s arms moving around her, and the comforting pressure of a body against her back. She clasped Bern’s hand in hers and kissed it sleepily.
“You’re usually up by now, Bernie Bear,” she whispered. “Is everything okay?”
The silence spoke for itself, and she tucked Bern’s hands under her chin.
“I can’t believe it either,” she murmured. “I keep thinking I’ll wake up and it will all have been a bad dream.”
“Mhm,” Bern said, face buried in the back of Violet’s hair.
They lay for a while that way, and she realized at some point that she had fallen asleep again, and Bern was gone. Violet pulled herself out of bed, waiting for all the stiff bones in her back to loosen up, and readied as best she could in the mirror. It was a new day. Time to work.
The sun was well in the sky by the time she stepped outside to squint at it, and the daily activities of their little home were already in motion. Gardening classes and self-defense training, carpentry and cooking—all were a bit hushed, she thought, but they would be. They had lost Walt, and with every odd sound one might wonder if they were hearing the onset of some terrible orchestra, closing in for the kill.
She sighed. Riot certainly hadn’t made things easier with all her stirring at Walt’s funeral. She glanced over to the gravel lot, and noticed that while Riot’s campervan was there, Winona’s bus had vanished. That woman was a strange bird, no doubt about it.
“Good morning,” a voice called from one of the upper balconies, and she looked up to see Jonah, Hector and Zelda sitting together.
“Good morning,” she called back. “How’s your head, Hector?”
“Been better,” Hector grunted, scratching at the bandage around his head. Violet made a mental note to restock on bandages when she got the chance; maybe repurpose some worn-out linens from the pantry.
“You take good care of him now, Jonah,” Violet said.
“Will do, Mrs. Keene,” Jonah called.
“Don’t you worry,” Hector said. “I’ll be ready to get back out there on time.”
“On time?” Violet said.
“Well yeah.” Hector crossed his arms, nodding towards the front gates. “The kid’s not going alone. Besides, now that I know what we’re up against I can plan things out better. It’s not a rescue mission. It’s a hunt. And I can do hunts.”
“There were a lot of high-strung emotions last night,” Violet said carefully. This was exactly what she’d been afraid of. “She’s gone through so much, you know.”
“You think you can stop her?” Hector raised an eyebrow.
“Solomon’s still out there,” Zelda whispered. “Watching and waiting, I’d bet.”
“Don’t worry about him, ma.” Jonah patted her shoulder. “We’ll take care of it.”
Violet winced and nodded, and continued on her route. This infernal Solomon Reed. After all the work they’d put in, all the miles crossed to make a safe home up here, a lifetime spent bringing people together—all gone to heck because of some old man who felt entitled to the lives of others. It made her mad; almost enough to curse. She huffed as she went for the next round of check-ins on her mental list.
The McGowans had been a bit shaken ever since Russell had almost ended up as Mr. Friendly’s winter rations. The rain had been good for the gardens—a little too good, she swore some of the plants weren’t what she’d put down. The ‘Wildlife of the Hallowoods’ seminar was a hit with great attendance; a new baby had been born this week of all weeks, and one of the water filters had broken, and fuel was low, but then again it was always low.
She took a seat by the fire pit a few hours later. She usually found so much joy in the little details coming together, but right now she felt she was watering the yard before a hurricane. A stop in her morning check-ins was forever crossed from the list, but more than that, there was the feeling that it wasn’t over yet.
There was a flash of motion inside Walt’s hearse, and she sighed. Riot investigating his things, she’d guess. She got up and ambled over, and steeled herself as she always did before negotiations. There was no point in putting it off any longer.
The driver’s side door was open, and Riot sat in the front seat, seeming to organize Walt’s old things on the dashboard. Diggory sat on the ground nearby with Walt’s journal in their lap.
“Good morning, Riot,” she said.
Riot looked up, and did not smile. “Hi Violet.”
“Hello Violet,” Diggory chimed in.
“Good morning Diggory. Sorting through Walt’s treasure trove, are we?”
“More like a toolbox,” Riot said, glancing over the dashboard. A broken rosary, a bundle of silver tools Violet wouldn’t be able to name, books and charms and old coins. There was a wealth more in the back of the hearse, Violet was sure. “He had a place for everything, but he didn’t label any of it.”
“I’m sure he’d appreciate you organizing it all, then,” Violet said. Riot looked up at her with a little suspicion.
“Just seeing if there’s anything I can use. For, you know. When I go kill the Instrumentalist.”
“I wanted to talk to you about that,” Violet said, folding her hands. “You made quite the speech last night.”
Riot blinked. “I guess. Wasn’t really planned, you know? It just came out of me.”
“Well yes. It was a very bad day for all of us. And if you said anything you didn’t intend, or think through all the way, there’s no harm in…”
“I meant it all,” Riot said, turning to hang her legs out of the hearse. “I really did, Violet. I’m going out there. And I’m going to kill him.”
“I have to admire your confidence,” Violet smiled.
“Confidence is key,” Diggory whispered.
“But… Riot. I don’t mean to bring this up more than I have to, but you know what that man has done to so many others. Bern and I and everyone else—we don’t want you to get hurt.”
Riot sighed, and picked up a battered white hat with ‘Walter Pensive’s Groundskeeping’ embroidered on the front, and turned it over in her hands.
“Violet? I’m already hurt. I was hurt when Big Mikey lugged me here in a sack, I was hurt when Botco took my mom. I was hurt when Clara and I heard music at night and then she was gone forever. And I still smell like the smoke from Walt’s funeral pyre. I’m tired of hurting. And I appreciate what I think you’re trying to do. Because yeah, I can’t cook or hunt, or even swing a sword that well.”
“That’s just it,” Violet said with a sigh of relief. “It’s not your responsibility to do this. That’s all I’m trying to say.”
Riot put on the hat, tilting it to one side, and looked wearily at Violet. “I know. But if I don’t, who will? Bern really shouldn’t. And you’re afraid. Let’s face it, I’m not part of your 'Scoutpost family'…”
“Of course you are!”
“Not like the rest of you. You all made this place together. I’m new. I don’t do anything here. But I might just be able to do this. And if I can’t, then nobody’s going to miss me.”
“I would miss you,” Diggory said.
“We would all miss you.” Violet shook her head. “I am so sorry if we haven’t been welcoming enough…”
“It’s not that,” Riot winced. “Sorry. That didn’t come out right. You are so lovely. You and Bern took me in for no good reason, and you’ve taken care of me, even though I keep putting you in danger. I’m sorry about that. I haven’t found a great way to thank you yet, but yeah. I just mean, I can risk it. If you or Bern were gone, everyone would be lost without you. That’s all.”
Violet nodded, and sighed, and put on her serious face. “Riot. I understand how you feel. I really do. But we will not allow you to fight the Instrumentalist.”
Marketing - Screening Process
Lady Ethel Mallory: In the light of Bill Scarberry’s recent arrival in Dreaming Box Venus, we’ve had a number of our happy dreaming family inquire as to our current screening process.
‘Are you letting in marauders and thugs? Any degenerate who shuffles in from the wastelands?’ you’ve been asking. ‘I don’t want them sharing the Prime Dream with my children. What if they’re Stonemaids in disguise?’
First of all, good. I’m glad that you are looking out for your children, for your communities, for the peace and security of your Prime Dream. We need more of this vigilance if we are to keep future terrorist threats from emerging within our walls. I am proud of you.
Secondly, let me be clear. There are no Stonemaids outside the Dreaming Boxes. This strange little movement, idolizing an old rock star, could only emerge in our unique environment. And it is almost gone, even within the Prime Dream. Stay tuned for Valerie’s Happy Reunion, a Botco Special Program, to watch the end of the Stonemaid threat.
We are diligent in screening all new arrivals. There are not many at this point, our country is quiet except for the horrors that stalk it at night. Twenty years after the black rains, most survivors that intend to join the Prime Dream already have.
New arrivals are appraised on several factors, just the same as you were when you first entered: personal history, occupation experience, credit history, physical health, respect for authority, work ethic, personality type, proclivity towards rebellion...
Story 2, Continued - The Diplomat's Dilemma
Sorry to cut you off, Lady Ethel… oh wait. No. No, I’m not. Maybe I should get an amplifying device, perhaps it would allow me to drown you out entirely. Turnabout is, after all, fair play.
We return now to Violet Keene.
Riot stared at her with wide eyes, a confused look on her face. Diggory exchanged glances with her. Riot sighed, and ran a hand under her cap. “Wow.”
“We can’t lose you to Solomon,” Violet said, nodding. “Someone else will deal with it.”
Riot stood up, almost eye-to-eye with Violet.
“Do you really think we’re safe here?” Riot asked.
The question got under Violet’s skin, but she tried not to show it. Answer calmly, never take things personally. You can’t compromise, Violet. Keep it together.
“We built these walls to keep things like Solomon out. We’ll post more guards. Set a curfew. We’ll make it work.”
Riot sighed, but did not break from her stare. Her blue-grey eyes had a piercing quality that reminded Violet of Valerie’s magazine covers.
“Vi… he’s not going to stop. You said it when I first arrived. He always comes back. He might pick us off slowly, week by week. Or he might show up here with a thunderstorm and an army of ghosts. No one is safe right now. And he’s not going to let me go… and you should have heard him, that night in the blizzard. He hates you. He really does.”
“More than the usual,” said Diggory.
“And I know,” Riot continued, “that you’ve got these walls, and you probably wish you could just shut the gate and try to forget about all the awfulness out there. It hurts. It absolutely sucks. But we can’t wait for someone else to take care of this. It’s going to be me. It has to be me.”
Violet nodded, breathed. Calm. Collected. Diplomatic.
“I don’t think you understood me,” she said. “We are not allowing you. You’re in the most danger out of everyone. We need to keep you as far away from him as…”
“No offense, Violet, but you’re not my mom.” Riot said, straightening her hat. “And last time I checked, I didn’t work for you either.”
Violet stood, a bit stunned. A feeling was bubbling up in her that would be bad for negotiations.
Deep down, she knew, Riot wasn’t wrong. The walls were comforting things, and part of her, eternally the optimist, hoped that they would take shelter and the storm would pass.
But it wasn’t going to pass, was it?
The storm was here to stay, and if they didn’t stab it in the eye, it would devour them all.
“Okay,” Violet said, looking away. “Okay.”
“Okay?” said Riot.
Violet nodded, and put her hands on her hips. “Yep. We’re going with you.”
Riot shook her head. “Violet, you really shouldn’t…”
“All of us. The hunters, the combat scouts. We’ll do this together,” Violet decided, and rubbed her hands together. The world outside her walls was shifting, new factors to manage and organize.
“Solomon has made it clear that there will be no more diplomacy. So this is what he gets. And we’ve got a lot on our side, even if none of Walt’s… friends show up. Hector is right. This is a hunt.”
“I was really just thinking I’ll show up and face him down,” Riot said.
“Nonsense,” Violet clapped. “You’ll have the Scoutpost at your back. You are one of us, and we’re going to do this together. We’re going to burn that man’s house down.”
Riot stood with raised eyebrows. “Violet, you really…”
“Good luck with the sorting!” Violet called, already stepping off across the yard and making for her study. “I’ve got planning to do!”
Interlude 2 - Never Safe
There are walls across the universe, dreamers, but they are not as heavy as the ones in your heart. The ruins of once-proud cities stand on distant moons; underground citadels now locked in ice. Life is a natural resource among the stars, and how quickly it runs dry.
Peoples are destroyed by calamity—a bursting star, a wayward asteroid—but as often as not, they are destroyed by the barriers they have built for themselves. It is part of your survival instinct, I think, to greet the unknown with fear. To separate the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, neighbor and invader.
The walls in your thoughts are more difficult to dismantle than any made of stone or iron. Understanding and compassion are heavier tools to wield than any sledgehammer. It is comforting to hide behind our walls and feel that we are safe, but the truth is, we are never safe, and the danger comes not from our siblings in life but from the endless sky above all of our heads. The universe has no respect for your walls, and if you shut out the world, close your gates to its light and people and opportunity, you will wither alone.
We go now to one who knows this.
Story 3 - Beauty
Hector did not consider himself a beautiful person, neither was beauty something he thought often about. Mostly he concerned himself with practicality and resale value and the casual math of survival. How far will the gasoline go, how many days will the food last, how much filtered water can I spare?
Nevertheless, as he walked side-by-side with Jonah into the black pine trees, rays of the dying light escaping their needles to dapple Jonah’s face and hat, beauty was on his mind.
“What are you thinking about?” Jonah asked. Jackie and Heidi traipsed ahead, nosing at the occasional fallen trunk or escaping squirrel.
“Nothing much,” Hector said, glancing at the sky. “Trying to think how much ground we’ve likely covered in the last few weeks. Lot of walking.”
“You’d know better than I would,” Jonah shrugged. “My travel time is all messed up.”
“Right,” Hector breathed. Jonah hadn’t been the same since they’d reunited—there was a green streak in his eyes that hadn’t been there before, but more than that a sense of calm. A peace he hadn’t seen from the terrified man he’d met on the shores of the Froglin town.
“Thanks for coming after me,” Jonah said. “I know my ma asked you, but you didn’t have to. Why’d you do it?”
Hector thought for a moment, boots crunching in the underbrush. “To be honest, I expected I’d find a body. I guess I did, actually. But I don’t have many friends on the list, and Zelda, well. She was heartbroken. Couldn’t leave her like that.”
“Would you do it again, if you knew all the crazy stuff you’d get pulled into?” Jonah asked. They emerged into a clearing; the clouds were like distant mountains of fire, and shelves of fungus sprouted from a circle of old trees. A stump sat in the center, with shattered pieces of the trunk fallen around it.
“I reckon I would,” Hector said, sitting down heavily on one of the logs. Heidi came up to stare at him, glazed eyes wide. He scratched at her ears.
“I mean, look at Heidi. Look at me. I’ve seen some wild things south of here, learned how to manage critters bigger and meaner than they have any right to be. But, ah, what we saw in those north woods—that thing without a face, ah… and Zelda’s cabinets and harps and… it’s a lot.”
“I know,” Jonah said, spreading a checked blanket over the stump. He set out a candle, plates, and unwrapped dinner from brown paper bundles.
“Ma’s a little stronger now,” Jonah said. “Walking again. Keeps escaping from her bed. Soon the whole Scoutpost will regret inviting her.”
“It’s good that she’s here,” Hector sighed, and lit the candle. “She’ll be happy.”
The glimmer of light cast a warm glow on Jonah, even as the light in the sky faded quickly into a purple night.
“Jonah, I have something important to say. Part of the reason I asked you out here tonight.”
Jonah looked up with a little surprise, sitting down. “I thought I asked you out here. I’ve got something to say too.”
“Oh. Huh,” Hector said. “You go first, then.”
“No, it’s alright,” Jonah said. “You first.”
“Alright.” Hector looked around, his thoughts racing all of a sudden. “You said something the other day about ‘someplace warmer’. And I realized—all these years by myself, I’ve only really thought about right now. Get food. Get salvage. Survive to next week. And… meeting you… it’s been different. You make me wanna think farther ahead. And… whatever the next year, years, look like, I don’t like the picture unless you’re in it. I wanna stick together, if you’ll have me. I know how to keep alive out here. I’m not a bad cook, or at least the girls don’t complain. Don’t know my way around a boat, barely know how to swim, but I’d figure it out if I had to.”
He looked up to find Jonah staring at him quietly. Hector hissed through his teeth, ran a hand through his hair. “Sorry. I’ve never really done this before.”
“I should have gone first,” Jonah said, looking off to the side. His eyes were beyond green; they almost shone in the dark, like a deer or wildcat.
“Hector, there’s something I need you to know. And I think you’ve already noticed, but before… well. You should know.”
He straightened up and looked at Hector, and Hector had the feeling Jonah was staring into his soul. “I’m different, Hector. Something’s... I don’t know if it’s ‘wrong’, but it’s changing in me. I can’t fix it. I can’t control it. It started when I got sucked into that darn cabinet in ma’s basement, but it’s worse. A lot worse. I accidentally let loose on Olivier, with the fog? Solomon’s assistant. I found them by the roadside when I was bringing ma up here. I haven’t tried it again since, but… I want to show you. You deserve to know.”
As he spoke, his eyes began to glow—not just a glint of the candlelight, but an emerald radiance that burned like fire of its own. Hector was immediately on guard as a familiar feeling hit him like a wave—the pull of the Northmost woods, but he realized it wasn’t drawing him north. The gravity was centered on Jonah.
“I saw things in the sky, Hector,” Jonah was saying, “wherever I was. That other world. You say it’s only been weeks, but I feel like I was there for hundreds of years. I learned things that I have no idea how to describe, because I can’t even process the… the kind, the scale, the… and you see this?”
He gestured to the sky. The night sky was beginning to glow green with fire, shining like his eyes, and the stars burst and spun in a dizzying display.
Hector held on to his log for support, for any guarantee that he wouldn’t be pulled off the face of the earth and into the turning cosmos. Jackie cowered by his feet, and Heidi howled at the sky.
“I’m part of something bigger, Hector,” Jonah said, his whispers like thunder. The trees danced like living shadows around them, and the edges of the picnic blanket fluttered in a wind that carried the breath of the stars.
“I’m sorry,” he continued. “You went so far for me. I wish I wasn’t like this.”
There were little burning tears in his eyes, and they dripped through his beard into the earth, giving life to little sprouting vines. The wind became more gentle, and the stars twisted more slowly, and Jonah seemed like he was trying not to choke up.
“Is that all?” Hector said, after a moment.
Jonah blinked, and rubbed at his face. “Hector, I’m not human anymore I think. Look at all this. This is terrifying.”
Hector nodded. “Okay.”
Jonah sat for a moment, trees flickering slowly around them.
“Gotta be frightening for you, I’m sure. But I’m here. We’ll figure it out.”
“Figure it out?” Jonah said, and Hector winced because the fire in Jonah’s eyes was as bright as the sun for a moment, and the earth shook beneath them as he spoke.
“Are you hearing me? I’m becoming the kind of thing you hunt. Or like the Faceless King in the north. I don’t know what I’m for yet, but I know it isn’t good. What if it takes me away? What if I lose myself? What if I…”
Hector stood, struggling to keep his balance as he worked his way around the stump, sitting down on the edge so that he was inches away from Jonah. He could see now that it wasn’t just green; it was lights and colors within green, a viridian dimension that was radiant in the sky and in the eyes of his lover, beyond words or human description.
Beauty, though, would have been close to the right word.
“Do you still love me?” Hector said. Jonah stared for a moment, and nodded quickly.
“Of course, that’s not…”
“That’s all I care about,” Hector said, and kissed the man on fire, and the spinning stars above them froze, the trees seized in their proper places, and the sky above them was an emerald wildfire. Hector held him until the last of the flame flickered out into space, and the winds died down, leaving them once again by candlelight. Hector grinned.
“Why are you laughing?” Jonah said nervously, putting his hands around Hector’s neck.
“Nothing,” Hector said, and kissed his forehead. “It’s just funny how things change.”
Outro - Walls
Walls. We are all the personal architects of the citadel of our souls; guarded gates and towers to ward off invaders. Sometimes, in the process, we may shut out those who would give life to our squares, fill our empty halls with art, serenade our thrones with music.
Then again, we are cautious because of past battles—creeping sickness and private monsters that we have cast from our courts. Examine well the travelers who make their way into your heart, dreamers, but do not close the gates forever. The city of your spirit would be a sad thing if not shared with the world, and the world will love to see it.
Forever a battlement, a guard looking to the horizon, a city with a hundred thousand eyes, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting architecturally for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'The Other Dog', 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!