Content warnings for this episode include: Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Gun Mention, Misgendering, Emotional Manipulation, Smoking
Intro - A Curse And A Blessing
The road ahead of you is a curse and a blessing. A curse, because you did not choose it. Had you been born a few houses to the left, you might have had a home that loved without condition, a family who would not cast you to the wind. Chaos came for your soul in an instant, reached through your ribs to pluck out your spirit and carry it away. All you have now are a few upholstered seats, and a set of wheels, and enough fuel to bring you into the next horizon.
A blessing, because, for the first time, you feel at peace. There is no rage, no fury, no pressure to be. When you wake in the morning, you choose where to go. The world is yours, and you seek out a place where you will be welcome, and safe, and home. The road flies beneath your feet, and the sun flickers in your windows, and you soar the highways like a kite, and the hum of your tires sings Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I’m in a tank full of fish. They cannot see me, nor do they know that I am here. This is typical for fish. They live in their box of glass, sustained by and providing sustenance for crops in equal turn, unaware of their purpose or their inability to escape. They are particularly incapable of comprehending the sound that now echoes through this hidden farm: the roaring engine of an automobile. The theme of tonight’s episode is roads.
Story 1 - Welcome To The Farm
Gale Scarberry hated waking up—especially as a result of loud noises, and most of all because of loud noises that meant company. Life seemed to enjoy bringing him what he hated, he thought, as he rolled out of bed.
There was a car outside, stirring up a racket. They’d boarded up the windows but the place sure wasn’t soundproof. The noise put him on edge; he figured that if the bots ever showed up to take away the life they’d built, they’d show up silently.
“Get ready to pack up folks, this could be it,” he called, pulling on his university jacket over the undershirt and rubbing at his eyes. The metal floors were cold beneath his bare feet, and he glanced down the hall—the gentle lights of the garden bays filled him with a sense of longing he had only known for his first wife. I hope this isn’t the last night I have you, he thought.
“I want a rifle covering my back,” he called, and grabbed his sledgehammer from where he’d left it by the door. Darla stepped halfway down the stairs and leaned over the rail, her weapon strapped to her back.
“Keep shouting and I’ll shoot you while I’m at it,” she called back. “One car, gotta be two people inside.”
“Does it look like the bots?” Gale said, and pulled on a bulletproof vest.
“Not unless they’ve decided to start riding in style,” she said. “They’re just sitting out there now. Revving like idiots.”
“What a time for house guests,” Gale said, checking his wrist to find he wasn’t wearing a watch, and glancing at a floor clock instead. “Three in the morning. Jesus.”
Darla slid on her night vision goggles and disappeared up the stairs, and Gale pulled on his boots, coughed, and unbolted the door.
The night was warm on his skin, and he stepped out into the lot, keeping his hammer low and his other hand raised. He could barely see anything in the glare of the headlights—whoever was driving needed to turn off the brights, for crying out loud. He took a few steps forward, but didn’t leave the shadow of the Farm.
“Came for a cup of sugar?” he called.
The passenger door opened, and Gale Scarberry gripped his hammer, and prepared to die. There was a figure approaching, he realized after a moment, a silhouette in the blinding light.
“Uncle Gale?” his brother’s kid said. He’d know the voice anywhere. “Is that you?”
“I… Moth?” Gale said. Moth approached a few steps, and gave a little wave with a gloved hand.
“What in god’s name are you doing here?” Gale said, and glanced up to the car. “Who is that? Is that Bill?”
“No,” Moth said, and nodded to the car. “Just a friend from the road.”
The car revved a final time, and leaped into action, swinging around the parking lot and disappearing into the night with a glow of red taillights. Gale might have sworn for a moment, caught in the moonlight, that there hadn’t been a driver sitting in front—just empty seats illuminated by the green radio dials. He rubbed at his eyes again—god, he needed sleep.
He found himself standing in a dark parking lot, then, with the haggard skyline of Toledo casting little light to obscure the stars, and a relative he hadn’t seen in years sporting red shades and a funny little cape.
“So, uh,” Gale said, and blinked to see if Moth would disappear. “How’ve you been?”
“Uh. I’ve been better,” Moth said. “How’s Darla?”
“She’s been better too,” Gale said, and Darla shouted from her perch in the window two stories up.
“Gale! Who is that?”
“Jesus, Darla, keep it down!” he shouted back. “This is my nei… ne… it’s Moth.”
Darla flipped up her goggles, and lowered the barrel of her rifle. “Moth, is that you sweetie?”
“Yes,” Moth said. “It’s nice to see you, aunt Darla!”
“What?” Darla called.
“Let’s get inside,” Gale said. “That way we don’t wake up the whole neighborhood.”
Gale slammed the doors shut and replaced the bars; Moth glanced around in the darkness as Darla came stomping down the stairs.
“You’ve gotten so big!” she called as she rounded the last bend, and came in for a hug. Moth was lost in the woman’s arms for a moment. “Have you eaten anything? I can whip you up something…”
“I am a little hungry,” Moth said. “I’m so glad to see you both; it’s been very hard to find you. What is this place?”
“It’s supposed to be hard to find,” Gale said. “Old aquaponics place, but we’ve managed to fix it up.”
“Let’s find you a room,” Darla said. “Gale, maybe that conference room on the third floor? The green one. Go get Moth set up there. I’ll bring a snack.”
Gale led Moth up through the corridors and hanging walkways, passing over the rows of shadowed pools and growing beds.
“You grew all this?” Moth said, looking over the edge.
“Well, it’s a community effort,” Gale said. “But I help make it all run. Freshest vegetables you’re going to find in Toledo. Turns out it’s a lot like factory work—just different steps, living materials. We’ve been trying to lay low though. How’d you find us anyways?”
“I remembered your address,” Moth said, and Gale pushed open the door to the conference room. The previous owners had put a different brand of tacky decor in every chamber—more like a funhouse than an office. “You left a book in your home and it said you were going to Darla’s… and her mailbox said ‘please forward packages to Glass City Farms’.”
“I’m going to have to go take that down,” Gale said, and flicked on the light. A variety of white plastic fixtures with folded petals glowed above a room like a pond; a wavy blue carpet resembled weeds, and each oval chair was shaped like a frog. “Make yourself at home.”
“Do you eat salad? I should have asked,” Darla said, tromping in a moment later with a little bowl tucked in her hands. “We also have a salsa or something.”
“Chutney,” Gale said. “What do you eat chutney with? Chips? Peppers?”
“That’s hummus you’re thinking of,” Darla said.
“A salad is lovely,” Moth said, setting down a duffel bag on the table and tucking the red glasses somewhere inside moth’s cape. “Thank you very much.”
“How is Bill?” Gale said, leaning on his hammer.
“I had a dream about Bill,” Darla said, and sat down—a rectangular woman in a round chair. “I dreamed that Ethel was talking, and they’d got him down in Vegas.”
“And I had a dream I was prince of Ohio,” Gale said.
“It’s true,” Moth said, trying to find how best to fit within one of the chairs. “He got sick. So he called the flies, and they took him.”
“That doesn’t sound like Bill,” Gale said, and watched the sliver of the dark city visible through the boarded windows. “He always said ‘dreaming boxes are death factories’. Full of aliens or lizard people or clones or gay chemicals or black rain chemtrails or whatnot. He really turned in like that?”
“I would not have expected that for him either,” Moth said, and looked for a moment like a raccoon caught by a porch light. “But he is gone.”
“Well we’re so glad you made it here to us,” Darla said. “Are you here to stay?”
“If you don’t mind,” Moth said. “I have no one else.”
“You’ll have to pull your weight,” Gale said. “We all do. But we can talk about that in the morning.”
“There’s blankets there in the back closet,” Darla said. “Let me know if there’s not enough pillows and I’ll rustle some up for you. Otherwise we’ll let you get some sleep.”
“Thank you,” Moth said, and smiled a little. “Goodnight.”
Gale stepped out with Darla into the metal hall, and shut the door gently. Bill had raised such an odd little person—thin as a feather, tattoos peering from each piece of black clothing, a stranger in the world. Maybe it was just the environment; the Farm was a long way from the Bellagio.
“Is that your niece or your nephew?” Darla whispered. “I didn’t want to be rude. And what is with the spy villain outfit?”
“Name’s Moth, and it’s just… moth, I think. Moth is a moth is a moth, unless it’s changed again,” Gale said. “And trust me, that’s just how people dress down in Vegas.”
Interlude 1 - A Bloom In The Heart
If North America has become a corpse, highways are its bones, black and ancient and crumbling to dust. The only life left in this desolate husk is silver larvae, boxes burrowed beneath the surface, churning with sleeping life inside. Those who still travel take to the sky in little black ships, buzzing in swarms across the grey flesh of the country.
Few still crawl on the ground, but some worm their way across these remains, hoping that the withered place to which they go holds more sustenance than what they left behind. It is a desperate cycle, and all are realizing together that there is nothing more to consume, and the panic rises—no green place, no paradise, no Elysium. The bones are black, and so is the rain, and the oceans that swell to claim this desiccated land. Yet, in its heart, there is a bloom—a forest of rising trees, unfriendly and hungry things.
We go now to an unfriendly and hungry thing.
Story 2 - A Place To Rest
“Can you guys stop talking?” Riot said. “I’m trying to sleep.”
It was more true than usual; she had barely taken a break during their first day on the road, chasing the long path from Northern Artery to the Ring of Fire Access Highway to the old roads bound for Toronto. The black trees had clung close to the highway for most of the day, finally releasing their grasp on the environment in the last few hours of the trip.
“I could drive tomorrow if you like,” Diggory said from the passenger seat beneath her loft.
“Not unless you’re sure you’re done with the flashbacks,” Riot said. “One trip down memory lane while you’re behind the wheel and we’ll all live on memory lane.”
“Olivier could drive,” Percy said, presumably from somewhere way too close to Diggory.
“I don’t know how,” Olivier said. She’d folded up the dining table to make the benches a little bed, and Riot could see a round face cocooned in blankets down there. “Besides, it… well.”
“It what?” Riot said, crawling up to the edge of the loft bed and propping herself up on her elbows. Sleep would have to wait a few minutes longer apparently.
“It makes me nervous,” Olivier said. “I feel like I’d crash.”
“We like to see the confidence,” Riot said, and reached up to crack open the ceiling vent. It was getting humid in here, and Diggory smelled like cotton balls.
“The building we are parked beside,” Diggory said. “Is it a palace? There were so many treasures inside.”
“It’s a rest stop,” Riot sighed. “You’d stop for like, a stretch and a coffee. We made good progress today. We should cross the bridge tomorrow.”
“Could not we have taken a shorter route and crossed elsewhere?” Diggory said.
“Probably,” Riot said. “But Bern said the Windsor bridge is still safe enough to cross. There’s people that watch it. Or something.”
“Borders are a funny concept now,” Percy said from the ceiling. “It’s not like there’s much to keep out or in.”
“Besides us,” Olivier said. “If the bridge doesn’t work I’m sure I can get us across.”
“What, pick up the RV and throw it across the Detroit River?” Riot said.
“I… probably could,” Olivier said.
“It is strange to see a horizon with no forest,” Diggory interrupted.
“I know,” Riot said. “The sky feels too big.”
“Not for me,” Olivier said. “I feel like I can breathe again.”
“Sure, cloud girl,” Riot said. “Maybe I should pick something and make it my whole personality.”
“It’s not my whole personality,” Olivier said.
“I wish I had a whole personality,” said Diggory.
“I was big into horses once,” Percy said, shining a little brighter. “I could give myself little horse themed pep talks.”
“You can hear those?” Olivier said, looking up at the ceiling.
“The RV bathroom is not soundproof,” Riot said. “I am stormy. I am powerful. I am good at what I do.”
“They’re affirmations,” Olivier huffed.
“I affirm that I am a horses’ best friend,” Percy continued, and Riot chuckled, slumping back into the pillows.
“That’s not funny,” Olivier said, sitting up on the sofa. “They help.”
“Have a hard time with confidence in magic murder school?” Riot said.
“Time to dye my hair pinto,” Percy added.
“I do not dye my hair,” Olivier said, shoving down the blankets and glaring around the RV. Riot rolled her eyes. “That’s just me. Like everything else. And I am powerful. I am good at what I do. Stop making fun of me.”
“Oh you’re great,” Riot said, and looked up from the blankets, a little heat rising in her face. “We should just be glad Walt was able to sew Diggory back together before you got him killed.”
Olivier looked up at her with wide eyes, and glanced over at Diggory, and was quiet for a moment. A breeze stirred in the RV, though whether it was the vent or Olivier, she was unsure.
“Sorry,” Olivier muttered, and got out of bed, throwing the blankets away. It was weird to see her in normal pajamas, cast-off clothing donated by the Scoutpost.
“Wait,” Riot said, but Olivier was already out through the RV door and into the night. She laid on the edge of the bed for a moment, and Diggory sat in silence.
“I do not mind my new stitches,” Diggory said at last. “I almost appreciate them. As if some small part of Walt is a piece of me.”
“I know,” Riot sighed. “I just… I miss him. Still. I wish he was here on this drive with us.”
Diggory was silent again, and Percy was nowhere to be seen. Good going, Riot, she thought. You’ve gone too far again. She found some pants and slipped out of the loft, and picked up the belt with her sword as she left the RV. The building outside was all glass and gold deco, shining with starlight and overgrown by trees and dry shrubs. The front doors had proven locked, but one of the floor-to-ceiling window panes had been shattered, presumably by former looters.
She glanced around, but Olivier wasn’t lurking around the back or in the empty parking lot. They had explored the inside earlier, a cavernous space full of ransacked boutiques, luxurious porcelain toilets and menu items she could only dream of tasting. It was less inviting in the dark, though, and no light streaked through the skylights as she stepped through the shattered window and into the darkness.
“Olivier?” she called, and ventured a little further into the shadow. Her boots crunched on the broken glass, and there was a sound like a rusty wheel from deeper within the empty hall.
She rounded a corner, then, and between a gift shop with a rolling metal gate and a scattered snack outlet, there was light.
It was a crown of green flame, twisted like ancient stone, hovering in the air. Beneath it was a terrible shape, a black wedge that shifted and writhed in the darkness, and Olivier stood staring blankly. Riot gasped, and felt for her sword as she leaned in closer, taking refuge behind a marble pillar.
It was not just a shape—it was a rat, she realized, as big as a car at least. Its skin was dotted with hundreds of pinpoint green eyes, and its black teeth shone in the moonlight, and its grasping hands reached for Olivier.
Marketing - You Deserve Better
You’re dreaming right now. You know who I am—Lady Ethel Mallory, with a message for you from your friends at the Botulus Corporation. Do you mind if I sit next to you? It’s a nice dream you’ve imagined here. We could use that creativity and wonder and light in the Prime Dream, you know. You come to a place like this every night—whether you’re sleeping in a ruined building or a ditch by the side of the road or even what is left of your old home. This is all you have for an escape—a way to forget it all for a few blissful hours. But you deserve better.
I want to give you a life you don’t need to wake up from. It can be like this all the time. Safe. Peaceful. Sweet. No more running, no more survival—just the beautiful release of sleep, without the terror of waking up. Your old friends, your family, and so many new people want to see you. They want to dream with you. Find a dreaming box near you to join us in a blissful new…
Story 2, Continued - Problem Child
I believe that stories, while immaterial, hold value. Not because a set of words arranged together in a line, whispered by a sonorous being in the late hours of the night are worth much on their own, but because of what they can bring to the world.
A little feeling. A little thought. And if we are lucky, a little change, for I hope that you will wake up, dreamer, when this nightmare is over. I hope that you will confront tomorrow with fire in your eyes and a sword in your hand. I want you to fight for a waking life, however much it may hurt you. And when you fall asleep for the last time, at least something real will fall from your hands.
We return now to Riot Maidstone.
Riot stood in the shadow, and felt for her sword. She could barely take her eyes away from the scene unfolding in the empty station, the witch and the rat born of her nightmares—it was a thousand squirming forms tied together in one, and stepped ever so carefully towards Olivier. The crown of flame was the strangest thing, burning silently in the air, and casting green light across the dusty tiles. Olivier was tiny and blue in the darkness, staring transfixed as the beast slid closer.
She wanted to turn back, to fetch Diggory and Percy and let the dead people deal with the rat king—but if she lost sight of Olivier, she might never see her again.
Think, Riot, she thought. What would Walt do?
She knew what it was, and she cursed to herself, and pulled the silver blade free of its sheath.
“Hey,” she shouted, and ducked out from the pillar’s shadow. “Squeakers! Pick on someone a little bigger!”
A face made of faces turned towards her, clusters of eyes like jade spotlights. She swung the sword around in the air, hopping back a little, and checked the storefront beside her—the sliding security gate to her right had been cracked open a few feet. Perfect.
“This way, ratatouille!” she called, and with a lurch that she felt in her stomach, the rat king crept swiftly towards her. It moved silently, despite being as big as a car, and she hated every twitch of its spined ears or long barbed tail. She slid through the opening in the grate, and it followed, darting between the overturned shelves and empty beverage cabinets.
“Pick anything you want,” she said, and darted back past the beast—she swore the tiny heads of smaller rats were caught in its surface, they boiled up towards her as she passed—but she slid through the opening in the security grille and yanked it shut. It rolled against the wall with a slam, and she looped a length of chain to hold it closed.
The gigantic rodent scurried back and forth in the makeshift cage, sniffing at the air, and it reached out to paw at the grate with twisted fingers. The gate held, and Riot dashed back over to where Olivier stood. Olivier was still staring after the rat, the green light of the crown glinting in her eyes.
“Snap out of it,” Riot said, and the light in Olivier’s eyes disappeared—as did the green shine on the floor tiles. There was a shaking of metal bars, and Riot looked back to find the burning relic was gone. In the dim light, dozens of tiny eyes were pouring through the wide bars of the security grate, a thousand individual rats piling back into a singular heap on the other side.
“Crap,” Riot said, and the swarm now stood between her and the exit. She held her sword out, pointing at the gathering horde. The RV was probably too far away to hear her shout. “Diggory, could use some help!”
The rat king’s crown had returned to flicker above its jagged head, and its gaze was boring into hers, then, and the shifting green eyes in the darkness were like emerald stars in an ancient sky, constellations you could walk into forever. Each star was a secret, a dead world reflecting the light of a malign sun, archives buried beneath dead stone, dread crowns bestowed upon the heralds of extinction. All things ending, all things reborn, crown and eye and hand and lie and truth and death, death above all, death in the light and death in the void and death at the heart of life…
A sound occurred to Riot which she did not expect; an unearthly hiss that brought her thoughts back to her shaking knees and her sword and the gigantic rat of all rats whose writhing face was only a few feet away from hers. The rats were falling, scrabbling back into the darkness, and the burning crown sputtered into mist and was gone.
A small form stood at Riot’s feet, and turned to look up at her, and meowed.
“What happened?” Olivier said from behind her. “Was that… were those rats?”
“Yeah,” Riot said, glancing around the darkness. “Or something rattish. Rat-based. Um. This is a cat.”
The cat stood on the mosaic tile, tail raised, looking at them both.
“Oh you are beautiful,” Olivier said, going down on one knee. The tabby stepped over to her, stretching against the witch’s hands. “Did you scare the rats away?”
Riot did not dare put her sword away, but laid it against her shoulder.
“We have to go,” she said.
“Can we keep the kitty?” Olivier looked up with eyes that glittered blue in the darkness.
Riot thought for a moment—being in cramped quarters with a feral animal would not be fun. What if it shed? Or got carsick? Or had fleas? The RV already smelled like dog and taxidermy.
But there were those blue eyes.
“Sure,” Riot said. “If she wants to go. I came out here to say… sorry. It wasn’t all your fault. It was a bad week for everyone. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”
“It’s okay,” Olivier said, and picked up the cat. It sat awkwardly in her arms. “I know you can’t forget that. Neither can I. But I’m here now, right? I’m trying to do better. I’m trying to help. Is there anything else I can do?”
“Is that a cat?” Percy said, and Riot looked up to find Diggory standing in the broken glass window, and Percy hovering with his hands in his pockets.
“I think it is a cat,” Diggory said.
“Everybody back in the van,” Riot said, and made for the window. The cat gave her an unblinking stare as they returned to the RV. Welcome aboard, she thought. “We’ll have to drive a little longer tonight.”
Interlude 2 - Highways Through The Universe
There is no such thing as ‘space aliens’. Anything that lives in space has a right to be there, yourselves included. It is true, there are few that have really perfected linear travel in the stars. The emptiness between worlds is turbulent, prone to great changes in temperature and oceans of radiation, and full of unseen teeth—these have prevented the establishment of real highways through this universe. It is an untamed wilderness, a dark forest of stars.
Xyzikxyz has bestowed upon her scientists and scions wings that float on the vacuum, and gladly would they seal away your brain if you had a mind to travel upwards into the void. The court of the Faceless King travels too, opening its gate wherever he is called to rule, and his cruel jesters are known across the universe for their unseelie court. But none journey this universe so well as the Council of Heavens. I rejoice to be so free—in a moment, I am in the depths of the Hallowed pines, or standing above your bed, or in the eye of the storm of Jupiter. We go now to one who sees very little by comparison.
Story 3 - One More Bargain
Barb straightened out his bow tie, feeling for the right proportions. Out of his remaining two or three semblances of sight, none worked with mirrors. He felt for the bandages over his eyes. Only a little damp. Good. He licked the blood from his thumb and turned for the door, but the shadows spoke.
“Where are you going, Barb?” the Countess said.
“Out for a little drive,” Barb said, hoping some truth would throw her off the scent. A regular bloodhound, that one.
“A drive to where?” she said, arms crossed. Her outstretched cloak seemed to blot his office door out of existence.
“What is this, an intervention?” Barb said, pulling the keys to Cherry from the rack—a small infinity of leather fobs jangled on their pegs.
“You’ve been burning a lot of fire,” she said, judgy bat that she was. “I know it doesn’t come without cost for you. We don’t keep secrets from each other. You’re acting like a caged dove. What’s going on?”
“No secrets? Since when? I’ve got plenty of secrets,” Barb said, checking his pocket for his cards, and pulling two from the deck—their symbols flashed in his mind. The ace of spades up one sleeve, king of diamonds up the other.
“I’m worried about you,” the Countess said, and did the commanding thing with her voice that made it echo in all the shadows of the office. Barb reached out to catch an 8-ball before it rolled off a filing cabinet.
“Hey, none of those fireworks in here,” Barb said. “Listen, toots. I’ve got an appointment to get to. I’ll fill you in on all the juicy details when I get back. Maybe crack open a nice middle-aged man over dinner. Sound fair?”
“Call me toots again and I’ll crack you open,” the Countess said, and frowned. There was a disappointed light in her dark eyes. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
The shadows gathered and consumed her, and returned to their usual places beneath tables and behind bookshelves. He clenched his teeth and started out of the office. He was already running late.
Cherry was beautiful in the garage, and he pulled the sheets off her with relish. What’s a little more fire, he thought, and felt for the stores at his fingertips, felt it gather along the patterns of the cards. The sports car lifted into the air, a burning flame in each empty wheelhouse, and he went sailing into the night.
The drive was long enough for him to get his thoughts together, while the black trees and wetlands swam far beneath him. A good bargain was all about desperation. What’s the most they’d be willing to sacrifice? What could get them to go farther? It was an intimate line of work, but he’d wheeled and dealed with the best of them.
He found what he was looking for just as the first light of the morning began to gather under the horizon—fancy lad himself, with a miniature sun in his hands. The wolf and the revenant slept a few yards off in the forest still; grand. Distraction was the great killer of sales.
The bridge was huge, turquoise paint peeling away like snake scales, and he brought the car down to rest in the middle of it, scattering the morning fog in all directions. Maybe there were humans here, maybe not—what would they say, anyway? I saw the devil and his double this morning?
“Well you’re the last person I would have expected to see,” Polly called. He was leaning on the guard rail, watching a few of the Thousand Islands shift through the mist on the water. “I assume you’re not just here to say hello.”
“I happened to be passing through,” Barb said, and gave Cherry a pat before hopping out. He grinned, and stepped towards Polly with raised palms. “Don’t act like you’re not happy to see me.”
“Have you decided I owe you something for keeping my friends safe a few days?” Polly said, and Barb noticed how his grip tightened on the cane. Beautiful piece of work, that.
“I’ll level with you, kid,” Barb sighed, and sidled up next to Polly, leaning on the rail too. “Sure, I do what I have to. Gotta get by. But I’m no crook. I had my character assassinated, remember? I came to say you’re in danger you’ve got no clue about.”
“Danger?” Polly said, a flicker of fascination in his eyes. He’s bit the hook, Barb thought. “From the Industry?”
Barb snatched a cigarette from the air and nodded sagely.
“I resigned,” Polly said. “I’m not important enough to come after.”
“All those centuries punching numbers,” Barb said. “But I can see why they never got you a promotion. There’s other factors at play, genius. Most of all the fact that you’re using a bank vault as a walking stick.”
Polly looked down at the cane in his hands. “They can track this, you mean.”
“It’s a nuclear reactor, kid. Lit up like the friggin’ sun. You’ve practically got a sign on your back that says ‘rob me, I’m loaded’.”
“A sign which you read, apparently,” Polly said.
“Nah,” Barb said. “I followed the scent of cologne and starwolf.”
“Why have you come to tell me this?” Polly said, glancing around.
“Relax, babyface,” Barb said. “When I knew I wanted to leave, I had to figure out how to be invisible. Hide every drop of fire, every soul I could nab somewhere the Industry would never find it. It took me centuries—I never took much, not at once. But after a few world wars and plagues and so forth, well, I got what I needed.”
“And you’ve come to share this secret out of the generosity of your heart?” Polly said.
“Nothing is for free, kid, you know that,” Barb said, and took a drag. “You just went and stole a reservoir of cosmic power from Typhon the Terrible himself. It’s true, it’s nothing compared to what he spends in an afternoon—but he’s got a reputation to uphold. No, he’ll be back for you, I guarantee it, and he’ll do far worse than break your horns or take your eyes.”
“You’re not scaring me, Barb,” Polly said, his burning horns beginning to catch a little light over his head. “I know all this. It’s the only thing going through my head right now.”
“Good,” Barb said. “You’ve got a little sense after all. I’m going to give you a trade secret, kid. Something truly precious.”
He coughed, and spat off the side of the bridge, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“Everything I stole, my storehouses of fire—I keep it all in a different dimension.”
Polly almost laughed. “We’re not equipped for that. You’re certainly not.”
“No, but a friend of mine is,” Barb said. “I’ve got the connections required to take all that powder you’ve grabbed and hide it from Tiff and the Industry boys alike. Accessible, withdrawn in small spending doses. Trust me, it’s the only way you’re going to keep playing house with wolfie over there.”
Polly was silent for a moment, twisting the cane in his hands. The heat was almost warm on Barb’s face; so much delicious power so close.
“I know enough not to do business with devils,” Polly said. “But hypothetically… what’s your ask?”
“Half,” Barb said, and breathed out cinders. “And trust me, even half of what you’re holding will last you for centuries. Like I said, it’s a big buffet you’ve got there. But it’s worth nothing to you if Tiff shows up and takes it back, and that won’t be hard for him while you’re lit up like Christmas.”
“Ten percent at most,” Polly said. “You’ve got your own hoard.”
“Half or no deal,” Barb said, flicking his stub into the river. It disappeared into embers half the way down. “This is a one of a kind deal. Nobody else in the universe knows this stuff. Sleep on it if you like… just don’t think about it too long, alright? Would hate to see what those—what are they, auditors?—would do to your little family.”
He glanced up to find Polly staring at him—incredulous, hostile. Right where he belonged. Barb felt a twinge of pity, and he let it show.
“I gotta get back,” Barb said, and pushed off from the rail. The sun was beginning to rise in full, turning the fog orange and pink, and glistening on the grey water. “Was a mistake to come out here at all… too risky. But you remind me of myself, I guess. Maybe I’m a little sentimental after all. Maybe I wish I’d been able to do what you’ve done… and hold on to it. You take care of yourself, Apollyon.”
“Wait,” Polly called, and Barb stopped, and grinned. Old scratch knew what he was doing. One more deal at the crossroads left yet.
Outro - Rivers
Roads. It is a human saying that the journey is the destination. I might once have disagreed—the destination is the destination. There is an end in sight, a better place to which I must go, a paradise to make all the toil worthwhile. Every time I think this way, however, across the course of my long life, the destination disappears, and I am left to wonder—what, then, was the point of the voyage?
No. The journey is all we have, and we cannot postpone our happiness for tomorrow, for some idyllic land where no trouble can find us and we may sleep in peace. We will travel all our lives, and it is here in the dust, in the sunrise of the early morning, in the night spent alongside tired strangers that we must find our joy. With every day we walk forward and hope not that we will reach paradise—for there is a worm in every orchard, and a cold morning in every cottage—but that today’s journey will hold more good than the day before.
Until all the roads meet at the end of time, dreamer, until all paths are united by the darkness consuming them, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting by the highway with an upturned thumb for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'End Of The Line', 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!