Content warnings for this episode include: Abuse, Ableism, Animal cruelty, Self-harm and suicide, Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Guns, Strangulation/suffocation, Misgendering, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs, Body horror
Intro - Blackflies
You hear the buzzing long before you see them. The echoes that hang heavy in the trees drive you onward, and you stumble with frantic steps—all the panic of the last few miserable days rising in your throat. The sun smiles on you, a parent laying you down to rest, and when you open your eyes you realize you lie on the forest floor, and can move no more.
The hum of wings grows louder, and you can feel the wind stir as they approach. It is an Ontario adage that the blackflies will gnaw your bones in the north, but they did not know flies like these—the size of hounds, with wings like stained glass and eyes like the devil.
You feel no fear, though, as the swarm draws near, sailing in lazy spirals over you to blot out the sun. They are not killers, for you are already dead. They are pallbearers, crossing-guides into the darkness, and they serenade you as they descend, a dirge that begins with ‘Hello From The Hallowoods’.
Right now, I’m standing in a landscape of sand and red stone. Were it not for the occasional scattered shrub, one might think this was the surface of Mars. However, that lonely planet is not this hot, and for the lone figure trudging through the dust basin, the air is like death itself. The theme of tonight’s episode is Flies.
Story 1 - Push to Contact
Frances Duckworth was prone to curse, but never to quit, and so she maintained a steady stream of profanity as she stumbled through the sand. When the air had dried her mouth too much to speak, she continued it in thought instead.
I’ll strangle Moth, she thought, with my bare hands. That’s what you get for destroying my life. All of our lives. What did Bill ever do but love you? What did we ever do but feed you and teach you how to dress and show you where to find the best apocalypse food in Vegas?
Ungrateful, she thought, and glanced over her shoulder to check for flies—there had been more than she had ever seen in one place that night, swarming in droves over their hideout, little red lights glowing like stars.
Maybe I should have joined my sister in Florida, Frances thought. Being underwater sounds awful good right now.
In the sky above her, though, there was only an unfriendly blue expanse. Now, she thought, where is Vegas? It shouldn’t have been hard to find, and yet the world around her was all sand, and rocky slopes that held up the horizon, and a sun that was determined to steal the water beneath her skin.
Frances began to hum as she crested a hill of rusty stone, and froze. In the valley beyond, a single dark shape hovered in the air—a glinting neon screen, and buzzsaw wings, and glass eyes that sparkled with her reflection.
“Crap,” she said, and threw herself back down the slope, and shrieked as the stone burned away her pant leg and the skin beneath it. She skidded to the bottom of the hill, landing hard in the sand. There was a deep pain spreading from her leg up into her hip, and she tried to pull herself to her feet, only to collapse in agony.
The blood roared in her head, but beyond that, the whir of industrial wings began to grow loud. She pushed herself with her better leg up against a rock, and as the smooth shadow rose over the bank, she fished in her purse for her pistol, holding its pink grip tightly in her trembling hands.
“Stay right where you are,” she yelled. “Or I’ll turn you into pawn shop scrap!”
The fly was the size of a beach ball, and did not respond or slow down. It hovered forward, fans stirring up the desert sand, and raced for her.
Frances fired, and the crack of her gunshot rang in her ears and echoed in the distant canyon stretches.
She had missed, though, and the metal harbinger was only a few feet from her now, and stopped to hover in the air. It had a screen for a head, a round and glowing display, and obsidian spheres for eyes, and its rotor wings hummed like the desert wind.
“Get it over with,” Frances snarled, and lifted the pistol again.
The fly hung static for a moment, but did not unveil a blade or needle or weapon barrel, neither did its eyes shine with burning light. Instead, the screen flickered, and a voice began to speak—the first Frances had known besides her own for four days.
“Hello,” said Lady Ethel Mallory, a little figment of a woman whose teeth shone like the sand. “If you’re seeing this message, it’s because you’re a survivor. A fighter. You bow to no one. At the Botulus Corporation, we celebrate that. Even the best of us need help sometimes. Simply press the button on this screen and our team will pick you up from your current location for transport to your local Dreaming Box. It’s time to join our happy dreaming family.”
The plasticine lady gave way to a rounded red button that read ‘PUSH TO CONTACT NOW’.
Frances held her weapon, and watched the fly wobble in the air.
“Shove it,” she said after a moment. “Get lost.”
The fly continued to hover, and the button flashed.
“I’m leaving now,” Frances said, pushing away from the boulder, and carefully she began to pull herself around the side. Her leg was in a bad way, and just the pressure of dragging it felt like burning needles in her bones. She panted on the other side of the rock, plotting her next step in the glaring afternoon.
The fly drifted around the side, and came to stop a few feet away. Again the button flashed and sparkled.
“I said get lost,” Frances said. “I don’t want it.”
The fly said nothing.
“I’ll shoot you again,” she said. “I won’t miss this time.”
There was a flash of white on the listless screen, and the button melted away, and once again a woman with heart-shaped sunglasses was smiling.
“Hello. If you’re seeing this message, it’s because you’re a survivor.”
Frances fell to the sand, yelping a little with the impact. Her lungs felt like paper bags, her throat like leather. The sun was a crushing weight on her back, but with bent fingers she began to crawl forward.
“A fighter. You bow to no one.”
The sun gave way to a crimson light that cast the bloody canyons and peaks in deep shadow. Stars began to pierce the blue sky, and bring with them night’s gentle coolness. Frances could hardly breathe, and there was no silence to be had. The message played again and again, sand in her ears.
“At the Botulus Corporation, we celebrate that. Even the best of us need help sometimes.”
Frances dragged herself onward, sharp flecks of rock and sand collecting against her bad leg, and the fly hovered behind her, following always. Again the face of the end of America. Again the flashing button, lighting up the night like a second moon.
“Simply press the button on this screen and our team will pick you up from your current location…”
“I want to sleep,” Frances croaked, laying on her back. The stars were eyes above her, and she stared back. “Be quiet. I need to sleep.”
“...for transport to your local dreaming box…”
Frances glared at the drone. Again the button flashed, and sparkled, electric light that blotted out the sky.
“Please get me water,” Frances said, clutching her pistol. “I’ll die without water.”
The fly did not respond; hung in the air over her head, an animate button flashing in the night, calling her to action and to her end.
“It’s time to join our happy dreaming family,” said the fly.
“Please. Can’t you see me?” Frances said. “My name is Frances. Isn’t there anyone I can talk to?”
Frances lifted the pistol, and there was a flash of white then—different from the ad, and different than the button.
“Well hello Frances,” Lady Ethel Mallory said.
“Thank you,” Frances sighed. “I need help. I’m…”
“I’m listening,” said the fly.
“Good,” said Frances. “I need water. Food. Please. I’m going to die.”
The woman on the screen nodded sagely.
“I understand. Life in the wilds of America can be challenging.”
“Challenging?” said Frances, but the Lady continued to speak.
“That’s why the Botulus Corporation is here to help you. We want to take care of you, Frances. You are moments away from a life spent in perfect happiness, with all your friends and family.”
“My friends and family are dead,” Frances said.
“You only need to ask for help,” the Lady insisted. “No matter where you are, simply press the button on the screen and we will rescue you. I can’t wait for you to join our happy dreaming family.”
The Lady flashed away, and the button glittered again in the night. Frances stared, hands shaking.
“You can’t hear me, can you?” she tried to scream, though it came as a whisper. The button flashed away after a moment, and the statuesque woman returned.
“Well hello Frances,” she said.
Frances said nothing.
“I’m listening,” the Lady said.
“Like hell you are,” Frances replied.
“I understand,” said the fly. “Life in the wilds of America can be challenging.”
Frances fired her pistol.
There was a spark from one of the turbine wings, and Frances howled as debris like a hundred tiny knives went flying into her stomach and across the sand. The fly spiraled for a second and fell out of the air, skidding across the ground to rest beside her. Its remaining rotor wings buzzed, but could not lift it free of the dust.
“That’s why the Botulus Corporation is here to help you,” the lady said, her elegance half buried in the sand. “We want to take care of you, Frances.”
Frances clutched her side, fingers fixed on a sharp edge, and she pulled. A long black splinter came free of her stomach, dripping with her blood. She gasped, and clutched the pistol close, dragging it beneath her chin.
“You are moments away from a life spent in perfect happiness, with all your friends and family,” said the fly.
“You betcha, baby,” Frances said, and pulled the trigger.
There was a dull click, and she pressed again.
She sobbed, and let the weapon fall from her hand into the sand.
“You only need to ask for help,” said the Lady. Her glasses were as red as the blood on Frances’ hands. “No matter where you are, simply press the button and we will rescue you.”
I’m beyond rescue, Frances thought, and in her head she was barely on the sand at all, not beneath a night sky but the sunlit palms, running with her sister through lawn sprinklers, kissing the men and women of their little Vegas family, listening to the halls of abandoned slot machines sing like a choir of neon angels.
“I can’t wait for you to join our happy dreaming family,” said the fly.
What the hell, thought Frances, and reached out to press a blood-stained finger to the screen. I’m no quitter.
Interlude 1 - Strange Sightings
The sparse and unnamed roads that lead into the Hallowoods are known for strange and terrible sightings, but there are rumors to be found about roads all across America. Something that looks like a radio tower but always grows nearer is said to haunt the side of the I-75 as far south as Atlanta. In the forests of Maryland, a one-eyed dragon sails in black thunderstorms. In Loveland, Ohio, great toads with wide smiles rise from the river crossing.
Perhaps one of the most widespread, though, are rumors of a dark winged figure, red eyes shining like spotlights, wings beating like a gigantic insect. It stands on the side of the highway and is gone the next moment, or makes off with your supplies in the night. Whispers of the moth’s appearance run from the dusty highways of Las Vegas all the way up to cold Chicago.
We go now to one who has wings of his own.
Story 2 - Cluster
Olivier song watched the fading sky fly past the window of the RV, transforming from cloud-streaked purples into night. In a way, it was a stranger to him; when he had reached for the weather throughout his life, it had always dwelled in the same stretch of northern atmosphere. The sky seemed larger here, with no pines to hide the horizon. Do you still know me, he wondered?
I barely know myself, he thought. The Instrumentalist is dead, the Director and Downing Hill are hundreds of miles away, and even the Scoutpost’s concerned old matrons couldn’t reach him. There was only the dead city rolling around him, and the people he’d tried to kidnap once sitting in the chairs ahead, and a cat in his lap softly purring.
“Can I sit in the front?” Olivier said, breaking the meditative silence of the drive, and the cat perked up.
“Ran out of books?” Riot said. Were the jibes supposed to hurt him, or was it just how Riot responded to everything?
“No,” Olivier said. “Just want to see what it’s like.”
“That is alright with me,” Diggory said, looking back. They looked different from the first time they’d met, looming out of the mist in a damp forest clearing. Perhaps it was the extra rows of stitches; perhaps it was the smile. “I will lie down a little while.”
Diggory clambered out of the front, steady despite the rocking of the vehicle, and Olivier pushed his way up between the seats and fell into the chair.
“How’s the kitty?” Riot said, and did not take her eyes off the road. The distant city lights glittered in the pins and studs of her jacket.
“She’s very polite,” Olivier said, and glanced down to find Nimbus’ little face pressed against his leg. “I wonder if she belonged to anyone else before?”
“I doubt it,” Riot said. “Who’d leave a cat at a road stop?”
“People don’t always mean to leave cats behind,” Olivier said, leaning forward. The road seemed much closer from the front; it practically rushed beneath their feet. “They run away. Or the people don’t know how to take care of them. Or they think they’ll be better off that way.”
“I don’t know,” Riot said, and glanced at Olivier. “I wouldn’t. I’d figure it out.”
“Where are we?” Olivier said, turning his attention to a map spread out on the dashboard. It was a wrinkled illustration of the United States, with cartoons of Dreaming Boxes spread across every state. A woman with heart-shaped sunglasses waved from one corner. “Did you draw on Lady Ethel’s face?”
“Maybe a little,” Riot grinned. “I don’t think that map has all the roads.”
She pointed to a larger one folded on the dash. “But this city coming up is supposed to be Toledo. The border guys mentioned a farm of some kind.”
“Good,” said Olivier. “We’re almost out of food. And gas. And maybe we should try and find something for cats.”
“Can I ask you something?” Riot said, leaning back, with a hand on the bottom of the wheel.
“Sure,” Olivier said, and pulled his cape around him. The embroidered clouds were laid out in confused clusters across its surface.
“What was it like? Going to school at Downing Hill?” Riot said.
“Probably a little higher pressure than Scoutpost School,” Olivier said.
“I didn’t go to the Scoutpost,” Riot said. “I grew up in one of those end-of-the-world survival bunker things. Just like out of a movie. My mom taught me some stuff, and I taught myself the rest. You’re probably way smarter than me.”
“I don’t think so,” Olivier said. “Downing Hill was about tests. And learning to be good at tests. I spent most of the time just trying to meet the next goal. That’s not smart, that’s just good at surviving. You know how to drive and repair radio towers. I think that’s smart too.”
“I guess… was it nice? Was it safe? Did you have friends?” Riot glanced to the rearview mirror.
“Not really,” Olivier said. “The lady in charge lives in a bottomless pit and her pet is made of evil birds. There’s some rooms that just have like, a giant soul-eating spider hanging out on the ceiling, or paintings that eat you. And I had one friend, I guess, but I’m not going to get to see her again. And your girlfriend kind of stole her.”
“I don’t know if she’s my girlfriend,” Riot said. “I just can’t imagine why she’d want to stay there, then. We used to live in this RV, for months, and I was there every step of the way. But she got a way out, and she took it. Like, was there something else I could have done? Or was she always waiting for a good time to leave?”
Olivier reached out, and poked Riot’s shoulder. “Are we supposed to be in the middle of the road?”
“Sorry,” Riot sniffed, and righted their course. “You kind of blew me off when I asked what you were reading about. I was actually curious.”
“Oh,” Olivier said. “Well. It’s about this girl. And she’s trying to decide whether she wants to live forever. If it’s worth the cost.”
“Probably not,” Riot interrupted. “I get bored after half an hour, let alone after like, year ten million.”
“In this case you also get to be a vampire,” Olivier sighed.
“That’s worse,” Riot said. “Once all the people are gone you’d just starve to death.”
Olivier frowned. Buildings and dark trees were more common in the falling darkness now, caught for brief flashes in their headlights. For a moment, he almost pictured that he was talking with Friday beneath some hidden staircase, and even though the girl with the buzz cut was a wild departure from the shadowed faces of Downing Hill, he didn’t feel out of place in the passenger seat.
“Somehow they make it more of a question in the book,” Olivier said. “I could read you some if you like.”
Riot shrieked, and threw on the brakes, and Olivier looked up to find the red glare of taillights ahead of them. The RV slid across the highway, and came to rest only a few feet away from the back bumper of a crimson muscle car. From his seat, Olivier could see two bodies—a man laying on the road ahead of the vehicle, and a person wrapped in a black coat off the highway.
What caught Olivier’s eye most, however, was a huge black shape descending from the sky, shining red lights gleaming like eyes, giant wings blotting out the stars.
Marketing - Humble Beginnings
…and yet, from these humble beginnings, young Oswald would rise to redefine our way of life. On his parent’s farm in rural Iowa, he began to assemble his first science projects, and showed a prodigious interest in video games and emerging computer technology. Despite difficulty at home and a lack of support from his parents, Oswald was inspired by his local science and history teachers.
“I still remember the lectures they’d give,” he said in a later interview. “They helped me to realize that the people who truly have the power to change the world are not the people who are geared around survival, or to eat, or to make a quick buck. The people who affect change chase the unusual, the extreme, the unbelievable, for the sake of the journey. They pull the sun out of the sky and give it to humanity as fire.”
This mantra would continue to inspire Oswald as he worked with rapidly advancing technology, and at the humble age of 22 started the Botulus Company out of his parents’ barn. Early projects dealt with digital software, processing hardware and VR, and he would spend the next ten years striving to find the solution to humanity’s growing problems. In the meantime, he also began a family. However, his home life would soon be rocked by the tragic…
Story 2, Continued - Cluster
I do not think even Oswald Biggs Botulus can be held solely accountable for the current state of your world. It is the dreaming populace who sought so desperately for an escape, governments that allowed his rise for a temporary profit, a slew of other corporations for burning the world you fled from. Oswald simply held the door for your exit.
We return now to Olivier Song.
It was not a Soul Weaver, Olivier decided, nor any of the other arcane creatures Downing Hill had taught him of. Nevertheless, the black shape above them descended quickly to perch upon the body beside the highway, its wings sending a storm of dust into the headlights, and Olivier knew what to do.
“What are you doing?” Olivier said. “Drive!”
“There’s someone down there,” Riot said, unbuckling her seat belt.
“There are so many things in the world you do not want to fight, and this is one of them,” Olivier said. “We can’t save your mom if you’re dead.”
“I’m not leaving whoever that is to die,” Riot said.
“Are you sure?” Olivier said.
Riot nodded, and kicked open her door. Olivier threw open his own; he sure wasn’t going to let her face the night alone, and he had much more than a sword at his fingertips. He closed his eyes for a moment, long enough to feel the turbulent expanse of the weather in the sky above him.
It remembered him, and he felt it shudder around his body and gather wind at his heels, and he leapt from the RV into the air. The debris flying in the light did little to illuminate the great dark shape; were those eyes or lights flashing on its surface? As Riot and Diggory began to sprint into the shadow, Olivier lifted up a hand and pulled the weather taut. A crackling bolt of light erupted from the sky, crawling in the gathering clouds, and for a brief moment the world was lit as if by the sun.
It was neither animal or insect, Olivier realized, and Riot held up for a moment on the other side of the empty convertible. The huge shape was a machine, and its gigantic rotors strummed the sky like wings, and red light burned within an array of glass eyes. It held the pallid face of the body in its mandibles, and a maw full of needles sunk into the neck of the still stranger.
Riot went plunging ahead, and her silver sword flashed in the swirling storm. The blade glanced across the sculpted black shell, and struck one of the large glass eyes. It made no sound as its red lens cracked, and with a launch of long landing digits the machine took to the air, turbines angling away.
Olivier soared upward into the night sky and followed the gigantic array, pulling lightning to his fingertips.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Olivier muttered, and in a vehement push launched himself higher into the air, so close that the light of his fingers glinted on the side of the twisted metal shape, and his cloak flapped in the hurricane of its wings.
‘CLUSTER’, the words engraved on its exoskeleton read. ‘A Botulus Corporation Product’.
Olivier looked across its bladed wings, the set of articulated digits curled beneath its armored belly, the glowing lights and needle points of its surface, and caught a blazing red light beginning to burn bright in its remaining eye.
He dropped suddenly, allowing the wind to fall out from beneath his feet, and barely escaped the electrical flash of its optical laser, smaller than the beam at Box Polaris but hot as lightning.
Don’t fail me now, he thought, and the weather responded faithfully to his grasp, gathering around him in a desperate attempt to reduce his velocity to a landing speed. The huge form of the cluster vanished into the night sky above him, and he looked after it a last moment before sailing back through the trees and ruined buildings to find the highway.
He landed, and dusted the grass from his cloak. A large warehouse of sorts by the highway read ‘Glass City Farms’, he noted. The others knelt by the fallen strangers, examining. Riot looked up as Olivier approached.
“Thanks,” she said. “What was that?”
“It was called a Cluster,” Olivier said. “It’s from Botco. Other than that I’m not sure.”
“The older man is not alive,” Diggory said, kneeling on the highway, a dark shape in the glare of the headlights. Percy was a glint at Diggory’s shoulder. Beneath them was a balding man with a college jacket. “I do not think we can help him.”
“This one is,” Riot said. The person lying on the side of the road struggled to breathe, and Olivier noticed a few objects scattered nearby—a pair of small red spectacles, a sledgehammer, a duffel bag.
“Do you think this person hit the other with the car?” Diggory said, looking into the convertible’s headlights.
“That doesn’t explain why they’re unconscious,” Riot said. “And the wrong car door is open.”
The car alarm from the convertible began to blare, and Olivier found lights blinking on at Glass City.
“We should get out of here,” Olivier said. “See if this person wakes up. If we can get more answers. If we didn’t just watch them get poisoned or something.”
“Okay,” Riot said. “Let’s get going. Diggory?”
The stranger was hoisted onto Diggory’s shoulder, and they returned to the RV. Riot took them down the highway a few miles, and Olivier watched as Diggory propped up their guest at the dining table inside.
“Everyone, I don’t want to alarm you,” a voice said, and Olivier looked up to find Percy’s ghostly body hanging through the ceiling. “But we’re being followed.”
“I know,” Riot said. “I think it’s that car. I thought you said that guy was dead, Diggory?”
“He did not move when I poked him,” Diggory said.
“He’s gaining on us,” Percy said from the door.
“I’m not a huge fan of being chased by scary old dudes,” Riot called.
“I’ll handle it,” Olivier said, and looked up to the skylight at the top of the RV.
The RV slowed, but the rushing wind was still crushing, flapping in Olivier’s cloak and flying in his hair. Dark houses and trees sped by on either side of the highway, and in the distance, a pair of headlights was growing brighter as the sound of a roaring engine bore down on them. Within moments, the red car was racing up on their tail.
“Leave us alone,” Olivier said, and with a flick of his wrist drew the weather into a single arrow, a bolt of lightning that sailed from the cloudy heavens to collide with the automobile.
Wheels disintegrated, the door flew apart, and the muscle car went spinning off the side of the road, tumbling down into flames that lit the night.
Riot brought the RV to a halt, and they wheeled back slowly to the blaze. Olivier stood with her on the roadside a few minutes later, watching the fire crackle around the twisted metal shell.
“Well,” Riot said. “I think you got him. Is it that easy for you?”
“I was just trying to take out his tire,” Olivier said. “That was too much. But it wasn’t worth… one of you getting hurt.”
They were silent for a moment, listening to Diggory mutter from inside the RV. Olivier glanced up to the fire, and froze.
“Riot?” he whispered. “There’s something moving in there.”
There was a shriek; a twist of metal, a splintering of glass. Like a moth crawling from a cocoon, the body of the vehicle in the flames shuddered and bent.
Riot put a hand on her sword’s handle, and backed away a few steps, staring at the flame. Olivier had looked on giants and night-gaunts, beings of smoke and shadow, but few things turned his stomach to see as much as the now complete car parked in the flames. Its headlights switched on, and it began to roll up the hill towards them.
“Hold it,” Riot called. “Or my friend here will go all Zeus on you again. Stop the car.”
Friend, Olivier thought, and lightning sparked unbidden at his fingertips.
“First off, stop calling me a car,” a voice crackled across the hill. “I’m a good old-fashioned automobile. Secondly, that’s my kid you’ve got there. That’s Moth. And I’m gonna need Moth back.”
“We can talk about this,” Riot said, as the car continued to climb over rock and grassy bank. “But I’m serious. Stop moving, or zappo.”
Olivier squinted in the bright headlights. There seemed to be no face in the windshield, no figure seated in the driver’s chair.
“You’ll tire out before I will,” the automobile said. “I’m running on 425 horsepower, a circle of Syrensyr, two sigils of astral protection and the spirit of a very irate ghost hunter. Show me what you’ve got, sparky.”
“Syrensyr?” Olivier called into the high-beams. “That’s an old one. An indescribable. You know about those things?”
The bright lights dimmed to a lesser intensity, and the car stopped rolling, only a few meters from where they stood.
“Hey, that ain’t common knowledge. Who the hell are you people?”
Olivier’s mind raced. Hadn’t it all been for that? All the odd jobs for Solomon in exchange for the one secret the Director needed? Even if Solomon’s method was gone, there was another pristine specimen revving an engine in front of them.
Olivier looked up, and found Riot beside him, a blade in her hands and steel in her eyes. Someone who was going to try and fight an automotive with an antique sword before she let him get hurt.
Let the Director’s secrets burn, Olivier thought.
“Moth is not well,” Diggory said, and Olivier looked up to find them peeking from the skylight. “Automobile, do you know what that thing was?”
“It’s bigger than the usual specimens,” the crackling voice said, flashings of green lighting up the empty seats within. “It’s been tailing me like a basset hound ever since Chicago. Usually the drones just see me, I freeze, they move on. It’s persistent, this one.”
“I’m Olivier,” Olivier said. “This is Riot, and up there is Diggory. Percy’s around here somewhere. Who are you?”
“Name’s Ray,” the automobile responded. “Kind of you to ask. What’s the matter with Moth?”
“An injured shoulder, for a start,” Diggory said. “Moth is whispering things, but will not wake up.”
“You may have noticed, but I don’t have hands,” Ray said. “I’m going to need you to take care of Moth until moth wakes up. Where are you bound?”
“Box Andromeda,” Riot said, although Olivier shot her a cautious look. “You know where that is?”
“That’s around my old roaming grounds,” Ray said. “Heart of Botco territory now. Which route are you taking?”
“The most direct path, I guess,” Riot said.
“Then you won’t make it,” Ray said. “There’s flies and things worse than tonight’s needle-faced acquaintance every step of the way. If you want to make it cross-country in one piece you need to take the scenic route. Run down South a good ways. Skip around on the border. It ain’t quick but you’ll get where you need to.”
“I think the car knows what it’s talking about,” Riot whispered. “Do we trust him?”
“I think it’s our best shot now,” Olivier whispered. “Mister Ray, if we take care of Moth for you, will you show us the way there?”
There was a moment of silence as Ray’s engine purred, and a flash of his headlights.
“Deal’s a deal,” Ray said, and went spinning up onto the road, revving in the night. “First, let’s find a better place to park.”
Interlude 2 - A Bigger Animal
We have caught now, dreamers, several threats from Lady Ethel Mallory within her interruptions of my broadcast. Do not for a moment think I am more than amused. She looks through heart-shaped glasses and sees an imaginary world—dream, albeit soulless and manufactured. I look out and see all the universe.
Everywhere, everyone, all at once, with few exceptions.
Do you think you hide in your armored boxes, Lady Ethel? That you could stand for a moment before me? She pictures that enough flies, working in tandem, could devour a bigger animal. But I am no dog. I am a night sky. I am the wind beneath your wings. I am every shadow. I am the nightmare that creeps in your writhing mind.
I and all my kind are impossible to you, incomprehensible, indescribable. The consequence of meddling in our affairs is not lightning from heaven. It is madness and turmoil and anguish, because when your eyes are opened to the universe, they can never again be shut.
We go now to one who does not understand this.
Story 3 - The Hungry Stage
Lady Ethel Mallory squinted at the sun as she stepped out of the carrier onto the roof of Dreaming Box Andromeda. The warmth felt good on the furs around her neck; helped to banish the chill memory of Box Polaris. The canopy of the forest was visible from all the way up here, though, and she frowned. The best dreaming boxes stood alone in a landscape.
“Are you sure this is the most tactical way to handle this, my lady?” Brooklyn said, stepping down behind her. She seemed so small, but then again, everyone did these days.
“That wasn’t a question about my decisions, I hope?” the Lady said, gripping the leashes in her hand. Her pets came buzzing behind her out of the carrier, huge glittering flies that drifted in the air.
“Of course not,” Brooklyn said.
“Where’s Marco?” Lady Ethel said, waiting for the steps to appear in the silver roof.
“He’s been busy keeping an eye on our… traveling friends,” Brooklyn said. The silver surface fell into neat steps, almost too narrow for her feet.
“As he should,” Lady Ethel said, and descended into Box Andromeda, her buzzing entourage in tow.
She glided through the halls and open walkways, watching the lights of the inner core flicker below, and emerged into the residential complex. Light streamed in through silver-tinted windows, and she turned a corner to find Melanie Flores standing in the middle of a long hall, wearing a little white jacket and name tag.
“Hello Melanie,” the Lady said. “Where is she?”
“Hello, Ethel,” Melanie said, staring up, eyes so wide Ethel could see the tiny chip implants. “Who do you mean?”
“The other Riot Maidstone,” Lady Ethel said, glancing to the rows of doors in the hallway beyond. “She’s in one of these rooms, isn’t she?”
“I don’t believe you’re authorized to visit her,” Melanie said, taking a step back. She glanced towards a particular door to her side, before realizing the size of Lady Ethel’s pets. Two security officers stood at the far end of the hall, and they too seemed to tense as her flies came wafting into the hall.
“I think you’ll find that Lady Ethel has company-wide clearance,” Brooklyn called from behind her. You can keep your job another day, Ethel thought.
“Not for this,” Melanie said, looking back to the guards. “That comes from Oswald himself.”
Ethel continued to smile, approaching slowly, her twin flies pulling at their leashes and surging forward.
“Then Oswald can discuss that with me personally,” she said. “Oops.”
She dropped a loop in both leashes, and immediately the flies went whistling for the end of the hall in great sweeping flights, wings like metal fans and mouths like hungry vacuums.
Melanie screamed, dashing back for the safety of the hallway guards, who held up their weapons but did not fire in Lady Ethel’s direction. Good, she thought. A little respect yet.
She slid forward quickly and bent herself almost in half to step through the door Melanie had been protecting, and yanked her pets inside on their harnesses. She sealed the hall door with her access card, fixed her glasses and her hair, and looked up to find a conference room. A frightened girl sat in a chair at the end of a meeting table, with that same slack-jawed awe that accompanied everyone who saw her in person.
Lady Ethel reeled in her flies again, and brushed aside a refreshments stand to sit on a table at her end of the room.
“Hello,” Lady Ethel said. There was something of old Val in the girl’s face. “I’m Lady Ethel Mallory.”
“I figured,” the girl replied, eying the huge flies nervously. “The glasses are a real giveaway. If this is about a record deal you’ll have to talk to my agent.”
“So they gave you a sense of humor,” the Lady smiled. Her flies had picked up the scent of new flesh, and tilted towards the girl. She let the leashes slip a few inches. “Isn’t that delightful. No, the only thing I want from you is information.”
“I hate to disappoint anyone as tall as you,” the other Riot said, “But I don’t have much information to give.”
“For a start,” Lady Ethel said, and let the flies have a little more slack. Their wings sent the office chairs spinning and papers flying. There was a pounding on the door from outside, and muffled voices. “How did Anderson make you?”
“What are you talking about?” the little hairless girl said. Lady Ethel leaned forward, and the flies lunged another five feet. Riot fell back out of her chair as they pounced, and moved for the far wall.
“Surely you remember,” the Lady smiled. “Did they grow you in a box? Or were you some regular girl before they took a knife to your face?”
“I don’t know,” the other Riot shrieked. Finally, a little honest fear. “I don’t know. Who are you? Why do you care?”
Lady Ethel held the leashes tight, the flies tugging at the ends, close enough to the girl that she could see their little teeth and mandibles.
“You’re a pawn, darling. You don’t even know the game you’re playing? This is about control. It’s always been about control. And terrible things happen with just a little slip.”
She let the pets rush another few inches, and Riot fell against the conference room wall, curling up in the corner, hurt and fear mingled in her face.
“This is an empire you’re a part of, make no mistake,” Lady Ethel said, and glanced outside. “I was close to getting what I needed. Very close. And then they went and made you, and all the trouble went to sleep. I’m impressed you’ve managed to keep Val quiet. She hasn’t noticed you’re all wrong inside, has she?”
“You stay away from my mom,” the other Riot said.
“Stop that,” Lady Ethel said, and watched her tremble. “She’s not your mother. Babies? Play dead.”
There was a flicker from the harnesses around each fly, and they dropped to the ground, bouncing off the conference table. Lady Ethel crawled forward—the ceiling was low for her taste—and took up a seat on the tile beside the other Riot.
“What do you want from me?” the girl whispered.
“That’s better,” Lady Ethel said, and laughed. “A little respect is all I ask for. They’re manipulating you. Like a puppet. A sad plaything.”
She lifted a glove to the door; sounds of a heavy impact fell upon it from outside.
“Melanie may be a charming little specimen, but she’s a scavenging insect and nothing more, hungry for a shred of my corpse. She’s using you to earn a promotion, and when she’s done she’ll burn you.”
“Melanie’s been nice to me,” the other Riot said, holding her head in her hands.
“Of course she’s been nice,” Lady Ethel said. “You’re her prize animal. But nice and honest are not the same. You and I are alike, believe it or not. They used me too. Molded me into what the company needed. Made me for a purpose and now they think they can throw me away. But I’m going to set things right. And I wanted to talk to you. Because you can dance on their stage like I did, pretending to be someone’s daughter, or you can make something of yourself. I want to give that chance.”
“How do you know?” the other Riot whispered, eyes wide. “That I’m wrong inside?”
The Lady smiled. I have you now, she thought. The impacts were growing louder now, but it was too late. She gestured to the screen, and with a flick of her eyes, routed Marco’s drone feed.
“Can you keep a secret?” she said. “The real Riot is coming home as we speak.”
The video did not open on a white RV speeding along the highways, though, but on an empty road, a desolate city full of abandoned cars, skyscrapers devoid of light.
“Marco,” she breathed in her headpiece. “Where is the caravan?”
“Lady Ethel,” Marco’s voice said, a surge of panic and surprise that she hated. “We lost track of them temporarily in Toronto—just looking through our other feeds now, should have visibility back in a few hours.”
“Heads,” the Lady said, and shut off the screen, and smiled down to Riot as the conference room door splintered in. “Heads are going to roll.”
Outro - Flies
Flies. There are scavengers in every ecosystem, life that thrives in each of death’s grisly stages. Although your planet will see new life rise again, beneath a warmer sky and a harsher sun, the end of your days has certainly brought out the hungry on flickering wings to feast.
The cycle may have a few rotations yet before the roots of the Crown of Decay grow deep enough to crack apart the bones of your world.
And yet, for all the unpleasantries of the ending, there is beauty to be found in the he night-gaunts stalk in strange woods. They are the cleaners of bones, the scavengers of souls, to collect and consume the flesh of the old world and foster new life within it.
Until the last of your life has been iterated out into a new age, until your end has culminated in a swarm of new beginnings, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting metamorphically for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Missed Shot', 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!