Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Bert as usual), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Sexism and misogyny, Homophobia, Birds, Gun Mention, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror
Intro - No Reflection
When you look in the mirror, no reflection stares back. You see only the empty room behind you, the drape-covered furniture, the sunlit dust stirred only by your breath. The floorboards creak beneath your feet, but you worry about them less than you used to. ‘These old houses’, the family below you whispers. ‘They have a life of their own’.
You hear footsteps from the stairs, and you take refuge behind a forgotten sofa. It is not your mother who opens the door. A girl steps in quietly. ‘I know you’re here,’ she says. ‘You can come out. I won’t tell anyone.’
‘I’m not supposed to talk to you,’ you say, knowing that you have already transgressed.
‘Who are you?’ she replies.
‘I’m a ghost’, you say, and it is easier than the truth, and you want so desperately for someone to know you in any way at all. She is the last friend you will have for a long time, until the sun has risen on half your life, and the shadows around you stretch out to spell Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I’m standing on a battlefield. You would hardly know that only a season ago, a fortress of pines held this place in a crushing grip, and a sorrowful song echoed through the forest, a tragedy written for fiddle. Now, the forest’s gnarled roots blanket this earth, and new trees rise to blot out all trace of a dark master and a tortured orchestra, to greet a living summer with vibrant cheer. The theme of tonight’s episode is friends.
Story 1 - Not A Ghost
Nolan had at times wondered if he was a ghost, caught in some transitory vestige of a life, born to speak but never to be seen. But he had known true spirits that night when he had followed Ricou through a tunnel of roots into this twisted lot. His memories of the Instrumentalist’s house were a dour mansion in a starlit field, pale flowers trampled by a horde of strange feet, and a fire that burned in all eyes except his.
The landscape had changed since, he realized, staring from beneath the boughs of a black tree. Gone was the wall, gone the pale flowers, gone the house, and all that remained was a great crater of gnarled roots. The air was not quiet, but chortled with the busy rush of an engine, and a small crane with limbs like a spider’s was perched in the sea of twisted wood. A man stood on the back of it like the tamer of some storybook beast, and its cable descended into a shadowed crevice.
This is it, Nolan thought. Your first chance to reach out to someone new. He glanced behind him, half expecting to see Ricou’s mossy frame looming between the pine boughs, but there was only the breeze. For the better part of two days, Nolan had tumbled their last conversation in his head.
“I will be waiting here, at our home, when you grow tired of this,” Ricou had said.
I’m just getting started, Nolan thought, and stepped out of the trees into the morning light. His feet were calloused beyond feeling, but the shifting tangle of roots was warm beneath his heels. He did not have to worry much about making sound as he approached; the miniature crane filled the air with a barking uproar. The pilot was a short man, tattooed, with a mustache that twirled into twin grey peaks. No safety gear was in sight, and he leaned over the operating panel to stare into the crevice.
“Are we clear?” he shouted.
A second voice echoed up from the pit, and Nolan paused as a headlamp emerged from the darkness beneath the roots, followed by a head of long brown hair. A young woman held on to the cable like a pirate on a rope, and beneath her boots a large wooden box covered in intricate detail came rising out of the abyss. Its corner struck a jutting branch, and it spun up into the sunlight as she jumped off.
“Christ, Elena,” the man said, and the crane arm lifted the box free of the hole to twirl in the air. There were locks on the front, Nolan noticed—a wardrobe or something which would have been at home in the attics of his childhood.
“It’s fine, dad,” the one named Elena shouted back, and removed her headlamp to fix her headscarf. “Be happy we got that beast up here at all, I didn’t know if the mini would even hold out.”
“The value’s all in the detail,” her father said, hopping down from the spider crane’s control stand to inspect the spinning piece of furniture. “It’s no good if it’s all been chipped off by a clumsy crew, eh?”
“Do you ever forget I’m your kid?” Elena said, squinting up at the object. Little carved angels and demons seemed to dance in the shifting sunlight. “Because you treat us all like employees. I want a raise, boss.”
“When you stop disappearing in the middle of your market shifts, we’ll talk about a raise,” her father said, and tapped the cabinet’s door as it drifted past. “Did you see a key down there? We need the key.”
“Nope. Have fun looking though,” Elena said, and tossed the headlamp to him. Her father fumbled with it for a second, almost dropping it into the pit, and he raised a gruff eyebrow.
“We’ll talk about this at your quarterly review,” he muttered, and went back to the crane, beginning to back the cabinet away from the precipice and lower it to the ground. Elena stomped away across the field of twisted bark, and hopped up into the back of a rusted moving van parked where the gateway of roots had once stood. Nolan glanced between them both for a moment, and followed her over to the van.
The back of the vehicle was packed with crumpled boxes, blanket-wrapped furniture, ornaments and porcelain figurines, survival gear and statuettes, military surplus and canned goods, collectible posters and typewriters missing keys.
The piles nearest the door seemed more familiar—books and religious memorabilia, carving tools, a rusted toy train, a silver hand in a blackened glass box, a small bell, an assortment of half-finished instruments—the remains, he assumed, of the Instrumentalist’s home. Elena sat in the midst of it all, gnawing on half a sandwich.
“Hello,” Nolan said from a few feet away, a specter reaching out.
She continued to eat her sandwich, and Nolan cleared his throat. “Hello,” he said again.
“It’s lunch time,” Elena said, and cracked open a metal can. The beverage inside was a hazy green and several decades expired.
Nolan stood in confusion for a moment. Panic, disbelief, or surprise usually followed his introductions.
“I’m not your father,” he said, after a moment.
“Obviously,” Elena said, around a mouthful of sandwich. “My dad’s ancient but he’s not a ghost yet.”
“You don’t seem surprised,” Nolan said, stepping a little closer.
“When I was growing up we had a ghost,” Elena shrugged. “I’m pretty sure he lived in the piano. I never saw him, but he’d write little messages behind the wallpaper. I bet half the junk in here is haunted. Part of the job description.”
“That must have been frightening,” Nolan said, and wondered about all the playmates he’d had growing up—they must remember him as a childhood haunting, if they thought of him at all.
“Well, you get used to it,” Elena said, and finished her meal. “What are you, one of these instruments? Old Mister Reed use your guts for banjo strings or something?”
Nolan opened his mouth to speak, and found a lie on his tongue. Yes, he wanted to say, and no, I won’t hurt you. Why was it so much easier to trust the dead than someone who lived unseen?
Elena sat waiting for an answer, like so many before. Another pair of eyes glittering in a dark reliquary of the past, waiting for him to be a ghost, an imaginary friend.
Why am I still hiding, Nolan wondered? Ricou’s words still lived in his head—different does not mean kind. Unique does not mean they understand.
And yet, Nolan thought, I did not walk down from the Shuddering Peaks to go on hiding.
“I’m not a ghost,” he said, and was glad that she could not see his hands shaking. “This may sound strange, but I’m invisible.”
Now the panic, he thought, and prepared to step away in case she screamed, or went sprinting for her father, or ended the conversation in a dozen other ways. Elena squinted at the can she was drinking from, and set it down.
“Really? How does that work?” she said, hopping out to sit on the edge of the moving van.
“I’m not sure,” Nolan said. “I was born that way.”
“Having an invisible baby would suck,” Elena said. “Just a warning, I’ve got thirty-three knives on my person right now and I don’t need to see you to do something fatal.”
“I didn’t come to fight,” Nolan said, and realized she could not see his raised hands. “My name is Nolan. Last time I was here there were so many… unusual people. I thought maybe I could find a few friends. Do you know where any of them went?”
“I just want to point out, going to an abandoned serial killer’s house to look for friends is real creepy, Invisible Dan,” Elena said. Before Nolan could reply, she continued. “Do you mean the night they burned the place? Because I don’t know. Wasn’t there. One of my friends was, though. Winona. She sees the future, or something like that.”
“That sounds like the crowd I’m looking for,” Nolan said.
“Elena!” her father’s voice echoed across the clearing.
“The Dry Market’s a couple hours east from here, usually where she hangs out. I think she’s got a hut on the back of a night-gaunt these days—you know the big moose things?” Elena said, hopping down and glancing around the treeline. “Tell her you’re a Friend of Zelda.”
“Elena, a hand?” her father called again.
“Gotta go,” Elena nodded. “Take care out there, Nolan.”
A friend of Zelda, Nolan thought as she jogged back across the overgrown lawn, where her father waited expectantly with a trolley. I suppose I have one friend, then, at least.
He turned, and began down the trail that was much less grim by day, and repeated the words to himself as he walked. Not a ghost. Not anymore.
Interlude 1 - Community Centers
If you are a new arrival to the Hallowoods and wish to introduce yourself to the locals, there are several places you could first turn. The Dry Market is a hub for commerce, small business, local artists and scavengers, but it is also one of the largest community centers in the Hallowoods, and often sees travelers from farther south. If you are something only human-adjacent, or have a high tolerance for the supernatural, the Resting Place in the Moormire is another popular destination for the lonely soul.
The communities at Fort Freedom, Webequie First Nation, and even the Scoutpost can be somewhat more exclusive, with certain requirements to enter for their poetry clubs or basket weaving classes. Life in the hostile north has made them somewhat wary, even of each other. Other establishments, like the Downing Hill Public Library, have no public events at this time.
There is, of course, the Pendulum Nightclub below the Spirit Sky Observatory, but you are unlikely to be invited. They are quite selective with their guest list.
A pamphlet for The Church of the Hallowed Name will appear in your mailbox. It will not say it is from the Church of the Hallowed Name. Do not open the pamphlet. Assume that at this point in your history, no mail you receive is to be trusted.
We go now to one who is good at making friends.
Story 2 - Dinner Guests
“A moment, everyone,” Violet said, tapping the side of her glass with a spoon. The conversation fell to a few hushed whispers, and she glanced around the table. “We are sitting down to dinner with some new friends tonight. We welcome Kellyanne Wicker, her son Jacob, and James Silver from Fort Freedom, our western neighbors. The changes this year have made life easier in some ways and harder in others, and we have to support each other if we want to get through the summer. Thank you all for traveling so far from your home, and hope you enjoy dinner. Cheers.”
She nodded, and sat down, and with a flurry of clinking glasses and silverware, the meal began. Virgil sat on one side and dug in, while Bern held a fork and stared absent-mindedly at Mrs. Wicker. Violet nudged Bern’s foot. She could barely hear a trembling violin from outside, one of the children keeping a musical vigil against the darkness.
“Thank you for inviting us to your home,” Mrs. Wicker said. “I certainly hope we can come to an arrangement that benefits both of our communities.”
“You all don’t eat meat, then?” Jacob piped up, and Violet recognized the look Kellyanne shot him. Violet glanced at the rifle he’d brought, propped up against a back corner of the office.
“Not often enough,” Virgil chuckled.
“We try to rely mostly on our farms,” Violet smiled. “But we do have hunting scouts. We’ve had some success with chickens, at least.”
“And bees,” Bern added, nodding to herself.
“We do a lot of hunting around Fort Freedom,” Kellyanne smiled, and impaled a cherry tomato on her fork. “Though, not as much as we need to, lately. So many mouths to feed.”
“It was a challenge for us for a few years,” Violet said. “Learning to work with local ingredients, what you can forage, how to grow things up here took time.”
“Thank you for cooking,” the one named James said. He was a small fellow, and never more than a few meters from Mrs. Wicker’s side. “The salad’s great.”
“Oh, well, we have Cookery to thank for this,” Violet said. “They’ve been a godsend in the kitchens lately.”
“Is that a kind of pot?” Mrs. Wicker said.
“It’s a person of sorts,” Virgil said. “There’s a couple of interesting folks who’ve become part of our big old family up here.”
“Named Cookery,” James said. “Haven’t heard that one before.”
“Not the strangest name you’d hear up here either,” Virgil muttered.
“Surely you’ve made some unexpected friends at Fort Freedom,” Violet said, trying to take the conversation back into their field.
“I don’t know,” Jacob said. “Make any unexpected friends, Buck?”
“Jacob,” Mrs. Wicker said, and looked down. Her son seemed to shrink a little in his chair.
“To be honest when we meet strangers it’s usually…” James began, and looked to Mrs. Wicker, and seemed to change the direction of his sentence. “Not usual.”
“What they’re trying to say is that we don’t get a lot of visitors,” Mrs. Wicker said. “Fort Freedom is not that easy to reach.”
“What made y’all decide to mosey on up here?” Virgil said, putting his elbows on the table.
“Many of us were unhappy with the way the country was being run,” Mrs. Wicker said, setting down her fork. “And when the rains began, many of us were ready. We had husbands who were prepared to provide for us even in the worst circumstances. To make a journey away from populated areas, head north for what we thought was safety. We’ve all had to take on responsibility in our own way, though. No hands are idle in Fort Freedom.”
“Nor at the Scoutpost,” Violet said. “Our classes start quite young.”
“Is that what them patches are?” James said, looking up. “Everybody's got those on their jackets. I like the patterns.”
“We do those for achievements,” Violet nodded. “When you learn how to use a knife safely, or tie knots, or read. Keeps the young ones motivated.”
“That’s how my little guy learned to play music,” Virgil observed.
“I could get one for reading,” James said. “I’m good at that.”
Violet smiled; she thought it best not to mention that Big Mikey frequented their front gates, but he shared a similar enthusiasm.
“We have a collection of books if you’d like to see them after dinner, James,” Violet said.
“We have a similar program for learning from the Bible,” Mrs. Wicker said. “You don’t have a lot of weapons here, I’ve noticed. How have you defended yourself from these… froglins?”
“Oh we’ve got weapons,” Virgil said, and leaned back in his chair. “Didn’t initially love the Scoutpost’s policy on firearms, but I’ve gotten used to it. Bows, spears, Bern’s handy-dandy crossbow there. And the folks with the knives for hands are useful in a pinch. Still, didn’t save our back gate from the frogs.”
“You don’t use guns?” Jacob piped up from halfway through his meal. “Why not?”
“Noise,” Bern said. “There’s things up here that are attracted to loud noise. Harder to clean and maintain. And ammunition is expensive these days.”
“And for more cultural reasons,” Violet sighed. Why did dinner conversation always drift back to violence.
“Knives for hands?” Mrs. Wicker said, looking across the table at Virgil. “What did you mean by that?”
Violet looked to Virgil cautiously, but he was already responding. “The dead folks that live here have these sharp fingers. Saw one’o’em named Huntington toss a Griffocaugh bare-handed. Now that’s what I call a throwdown.”
“You mean there’s zombies here in the Scoutpost,” Jacob said.
“Not zombies,” Violet said, and it was Virgil’s turn for a kick beneath the table. “But it’s certainly a strange time, and strange people have turned up at our door. We lost a good friend of ours this spring, named Walt. He helped us find ways to live out here, and in this forest appearances aren’t everything. Everyone at the Scoutpost is welcome, yourselves included.”
Something bothered Violet, although she couldn’t place it. Somehow it was too quiet.
Mrs. Wicker shrugged. “At Fort Freedom we prioritize safety. I would never allow something through our doors that could hurt one of my children. We’ve dealt with walking corpses now and again; I can’t imagine keeping them around for… utility.”
There was a ringing bell from outside, and Violet’s heart sunk in her chest. Not again. Not now. She rose from the table; Bern and Virgil were already out the door.
“One moment please,” Violet said. “Please feel free to continue your dinner. We may be under attack.”
Marketing - Strangers In Your Dreams
We all have needs. Food and shelter, safety and health. But even deeper are our wants. We want to be loved. We want to be wanted. When you join the Prime Dream, you are not just signing up for a life-changing experience. You will not just wander through memory or peruse our sleeping continents. You are joining a collective family of thought, a network of neighbors and friends that stretches across impossible distance. When you dream, you do not dream alone.
Our unique pathing solution matches similar dreamers based on your memories, brain waves, and onboarding exam results, so that the friends you make along the way are a perfect compliment to you. When you have a conversation about life with a lovely stranger on a beach that spills through the streets of Paris, it is not just a figment of your mind, but another dreamer whose path has crossed with yours.
Or, you can seek out human connection more intentionally at our Happy Dreaming Family Recreational Centers, available across the Prime Dream. Check with your closest Botulus Corporation Contact Terminal for details.
If you are still out there, in the darkness beyond our beloved Prime Dream, you do not have to be alone…
Story 2, Continued - Dinner Guests
Worry not, dreamer. You are not alone when you sleep. I am here, in your nightmares right now. Isn’t that a comfort. Less so is Lady Ethel Mallory, but if you fall into the Prime Dream’s crystalline snare, you will only hear more of her ambling voice.
We return now to Violet Keene.
Violet rushed from the crowded office—it was the only space they’d been able to dedicate away from the usual Scoutpost clamor—and out onto the balcony, where chaos had erupted. Scouts readied bows and javelins from across the Scoutpost, and Bern held her crossbow against the edge of the rail. Virgil was pushing down the ramp to the inner courtyard, where people screamed and scattered. The hunter revenant, a head taller than the rest of the Scoutpost, stood with sharp fingers flexed, but it took Violet’s eyes a moment to recognize the threat.
There were over a dozen round black shapes dwelling in the sunset shadows of the Scoutpost, clinging to the walls around the shattered barricades of the Lurch Lake gate. They had huge, glistening eyes, and rocky skin, and Violet recognized their wide smiles immediately.
“The froglins are inside,” she whispered.
“I know,” said Bern.
Violet clung to the rail and realized why no one had struck yet—a large toad stood in the open gateway, and held a writhing child in its webbed hands. A shattered violin and a small red drum lay amidst the wreckage of the barricade.
“Put down my son,” Virgil called, shoving through the fleeing crowd to approach the froglin pack, Huntington looming close behind him. “Cole, stay calm buddy, we’ll get you out of there.”
“Wait, Virgil,” Violet said, and threw herself down the ramp. She’d never been able to communicate with the froglins yet, but Virgil was too loud, too fast. He was going to set them off.
Virgil stumbled towards the froglin holding his son, and several things happened at once in a flash of the evening light.
There was a crack of thunder that plunged Violet’s world into a ringing silence.
The froglins scattered; one sailed through the air and into the crowd of scouts, and was caught by Huntington Waites, whose razor fingers slid through the roof of its toothy maw.
Above the battered toy drum, a shadow of a boy caught the froglin’s eye as he threw a punch with a small, shining fist.
And the large froglin suddenly possessed a third eye, black and bleeding, and Cole fell from its limp hands as it collapsed.
Violet looked first to Bern’s crossbow, but the barbed bolt was still in place, and there was a tremble in her wife’s arms. She turned around to find Mrs. Wicker’s son with his rifle propped against the railing, and he looked up from the scope, a wisp of smoke rising from his barrel. Mrs. Wicker and her assistant stood behind him in the office doorway, watching with concern.
When Violet looked again to the gate to Lurch Lake, the remaining froglins were missing, and suddenly the world leaped into motion again. Zelda was dashing across the wreckage to pluck up Al’s drum, and Virgil scooped his boy into his arms, and Mrs. Wicker was scolding her son, and Huntington’s blackened fingertips dripped with blood like oil, and Bern was shouting, and scouts scattered in all directions to begin repairs on the barricade in the few scant minutes before the sun fell beyond the horizon.
Violet could barely hear the uproar, and her world spun, and she felt light on her feet.
“I’m going to go sit down,” she whispered, although no one in the calamitous world might have heard her, and found her way to a chair inside the office.
She was not sure how many minutes passed while she stared at the array of half-eaten salads and waited for sound to return beyond her own heavy breath. Where was the woman who had talked her way through the unruly expanses of a world on fire, she wondered?
She looked up to find Bern standing beside her, and crying, which Violet had seen rarely in all her years. A second person, Mrs. Wicker, stood in the doorway.
“Can we have a minute please?” Violet said, as politely as she could muster.
“I just wanted to check on you,” Kellyanne said, slipping in and closing the door. Violet looked back to Bern, pulling her hand into hers.
“Bern, what’s wrong? Is Virgil’s boy alright?”
“He’s okay,” Bern said, sitting against the table, and rubbing her face against her arm. “The froglins destroyed three of our outer garden beds before anyone noticed them. Broke our deer fence. Set off some kind of explosive in our barricade. And they broke my bee boxes.”
“Aw no,” Violet said, and held Bern’s hand tightly. “It’s alright. We’ll figure this out. We will.”
Violet looked up to find Mrs. Wicker staring oddly at them from the door.
“Is there something you need right now, Kellyanne? Are your people alright?” Violet said.
“I think we should set our alliance in stone,” Mrs. Wicker said. “We need resources and clearly, you could use some protection. We can help each other.”
Violet looked back to Bern for approval, and Bern sighed, and wiped at her face again, and gave a curt nod.
“Consider it done,” Violet said. “In the morning, we’ll get this underway.”
Interlude 2 - Short On Friends
I do not consider myself short on friends. For a start, I…
Well. There’s Xyzikxyz, Emptiness Between Worlds. We were closer once, as you often are in your early years. I did enjoy my last visit to her shadowed domain, although even I find her laboratory unsettling.
Zazzlezazz, although we have not talked in some time. I assume he is still fine, since the universe is still here.
I had a friend once who was human. That may surprise you. Unfortunately, she is not here to listen to my stories now. I think she would enjoy them, if she could. It is a sad thing, the human creature. The fire of life in you burns so brightly for your size, but the shell that holds it withers so quickly in the face of the sun, and is gone.
To be honest I didn’t make a lot of friends when I was young. My aeons were consumed with other affairs. I thought nothing of it, at the time. When you are with someone who you think you love, the centuries just fly by. It’s amazing, how quickly the time goes, and all else with it.
If nothing else, I have you, dreamer, even if you are only a captive audience for a short time. And aren’t we having fun?
We go now to one who is also having fun.
Story 3 - A Prize With Wings
Mort stomped in a puddle, and laughed to see the water fly twice his height into the air. The dead seabird on his shoulder gave a low croak and sheltered its head with its wings.
“Sorry Bert,” Mort said, and received a peck on his glass dome in response.
“Watertown,” Polly said, examining the low buildings that stretched out around them. He had donned a silk fedora with the same pattern as his suit, and his hair curled in lazy spirals. “Because there’s water next to the town. What a shining pinnacle of human creativity, this one.”
“Makes sense to me,” Mort said. There was a large statue of a bird ahead; one of its wings had crumbled, just like Bert’s. He looked back to Yaretzi; she padded behind them in her huge wolf shape.
“Is everything okay Yaretzi? You’ve been very quiet today,” Mort said.
“I need to speak with Apollyon,” Yaretzi said, gold eyes flashing. “Alone.”
“Whatever for?” Polly said, tapping his cane on the ground. “If it’s fast food you’re hungry for, it looks like we’ve got options.”
Yaretzi said nothing more, and continued to stare at Polly. Mort wondered if she had gotten hungry again, like the time she tried to chomp him. He hoped not.
“Mort, let’s play a game,” Polly said, and Mort’s heart leapt.
“What’s the game?”
“It looks like this stretch of franchise restaurants goes about a mile?” Polly said, waving his cane down the road. Colorful signs decorated every faded building. “See how fast you can run to the end and back.”
“How do I know where to stop?” Mort said.
“Stop when there’s no more buildings, and come back,” Polly said. “I’ll be timing you. If you’re faster than me I’ll give you a prize.”
“I’ve never gotten a prize,” Mort said. “When do I start?”
“Now,” Polly said, and Mort began to run, planting one foot after the other into the pavement. The asphalt crumbled beneath his metal boots, and quickly he left Polly and Yaretzi behind as he sprinted. Bert flapped his wings, keeping pace alongside Mort for short stretches before clinging again to his shoulder plates. The end of the buildings came after a few moments, and Mort stared for a second at what lay beyond—a grey sea of fields, and beyond them the trees and hills of the horizon, and a sliver of sparkling water.
Then it was back to the lines of faded buildings; words that Mort liked but did not fully understand, like Ruby and Waffle and Bath went streaking by his vision.
He could spot his friends in the distance now, and he slowed down a little. Yaretzi was no longer the huge black wolf, but a woman with fur that bristled from her back and arms, standing on longer legs than her own. She was shouting, with a mouth of sharp teeth, and Polly was waving his hat around, the horns on his head blazing bright. Mort looked around, but there were no others to be seen.
Mort had the momentary feeling that he was seeing something he wasn’t supposed to, and decided to watch more of it. He stayed close to the side of a large building, and watched from its shadow as their voices carried on the wind.
“I can smell him on you,” Yaretzi growled. “There are no other demons on earth and none are as foul as Barbatos. What are you keeping from me, Apollyon?”
“Fine, yes, he did visit,” Polly said, and stepped across an empty fountain to lean against a statue; flowers and birds and a waving woman were cast in black metal. “He had some urgent news and we talked, and he left, and that was it.”
“Do you understand what I have sacrificed to be here with you and Mort?” Yaretzi said, stalking up to him. “I think I have earned more than ‘urgent news’ and ‘we talked’. What happened to the fire in your cane? What did you do?”
“They were going to come after us,” Polly said, and flipped his cane in his hand, and a glimmer of fire sliced through the core of the statue. The waving woman fell sideways into the basin, hand raised to the sky. “You think Tolshotol still covers retirement for this backwater world? Maybe he does, I don’t know. But you didn’t go to the regional manager for the Industry and steal his good cane and tell him to screw himself, and that is exactly what I did. So apologies if I have to take some measures for our collective safety.”
Yaretzi was a full wolf again, her pointed eyes as bright as the sunlight, gold caught in the black rivulets of her fur.
“What did you do?” she growled.
“Barb has a way to hide it,” Polly said. “The soul fire. He’s kept his trove a secret from the Industry for centuries, and he’s helping me to do the same.”
Barb was nice, Mort thought. He was almost my family, until Polly came back.
“He does nothing out of charity,” Yaretzi hissed. “Tell me you did not give him anything.”
“It’s mine,” Polly said, standing up to her massive jaws. “I literally work in soul finance. I can manage my own affairs. And I am doing this to keep you and Mort safe.”
“You need it to fight,” Yaretzi said, teeth flashing. “What good is hiding if you cannot defend yourself?”
Polly began to speak, and glanced up to find Mort poking his dome around the corner.
“Oh hello Mort,” Polly said. “You were very quick!”
“What’s going on?” Mort said.
“Nothing,” Polly laughed. “Here, let’s find you a prize…”
“I don’t want a prize,” Mort said, stepping out reluctantly from the line of buildings. “I want you two to stop yelling at each other. It’s not nice.”
“He deserves to know,” Yaretzi said.
Polly seemed to root around within his suit jacket, as if looking for something in his pockets. “He’s practically a child, Yaretzi, he doesn’t…”
“I’m not a child,” Mort said. “Tell me.”
“Polly is in trouble with bad people,” Yaretzi said, and Polly sniffed. “And Barbatos has stolen something from him.”
“Not stolen,” Polly muttered. “It was a deal.”
“Oh,” said Mort. “Do you need me to fight more people? I thought we were done with that.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Polly smiled, and pulled a piece of paper from his jacket, and began to fold it nimbly. It became smaller in his hands, until he opened his palms to Mort, and a small paper bird sat within. “Everything is fine.”
Mort plucked up the bird carefully with his huge claw, examining it. “It’s just like Bert!”
“Everything is fine,” Yaretzi echoed, “for now. We should make a plan for when they find us.”
“Rest assured,” Polly said, and placed his hat back on his head. “If it’s anyone from the Industry, I can manage.”
Outro - Friends
Friends. It is comforting, I think, to find somewhere along our journeys that we are not alone. It is pleasant to have the silence interrupted by a familiar voice, a close and present reminder that we live in a world larger than our own mind. More than that, though, a friend says that there is something in us—a little warmth, or humor, or even a mutual cynicism that is worth sharing.
If you look around, however, to find yourself alone, know two things. The first is that I am closeby, watching, as I am everywhere at all times.
The second is that friends are easier made than you think, but harder to locate than you might suspect. Search under stones and in quiet places. Look for where crows or mushrooms gather. Investigate local bodies of stagnant water, and leads from cryptic posters. Friends will find you when you least expect it, and after that you will never quite be rid of them.
Until you find the friends you deserve, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting amiably for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Desecrate', 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!