HFTH - Episode 61 - Protectors



Content warnings for this episode include: Physical Abuse (hit with a plastic rod), Bullying, Animal death (Heidi as usual), Mental illness, Religious violence, Homophobia, Longwinded rants about sin, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs, Body horror, Electrocution



Intro - One More Goodbye

You would have thought by now that goodbyes would not hurt you, that no parting could find its way beneath the armor of your spirit. You have known so many of them, after all, and eventually you come to expect one with every greeting—a ticking counter on every minute, dialing away until they vanish from your life.


And yet, for this single exception you hoped it would be different. And even as the world you know comes shuddering to an end, black rains rolling in to shadow your happiness, and she chases secrets guarded by crones and buried deep beneath the earth, you pray that she will not be taken from you.


She tries to leave unannounced, but by profession you are a light sleeper, and so you have the privilege of standing on the shore as she says goodbye. It is a dagger in your heart, but you try not to let your smile falter. Bring her back safely, you ask of her friends. You watch until their ship clears the horizon, and although it vanishes safely into the north, you do not hope for another hello. You will not be there when it comes, reborn as a hello from the Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now, I’m standing in a crowd. A hundred walks of life surround me, but they all led north to this cluster of tents and covered stalls, perched on the side of a great dark lake. Against better judgement, children play in the shallows while scrupulous parents watch from the shore. The theme of tonight’s episode is Protectors.



Story 1 - Allegiance

Victoria Tepiani closed her eyes, and felt the sun against her skin. The warmth was a little heaven, washing away for a moment the stress of the day.


“Are you okay, Victoria?” Harrow whispered behind her.


“Harrow?” she said, blinking back to reality. “A little space.”


“Alright, everyone,” Winona called, turning back to the group and waving a hand. “Who’s been to the Dry Market before?”


No hands were raised. Between the trees, a bright scene sprawled out across a rocky beach, and a tumult of voices struck her ears. Not a crowd, she hoped.


“They really do keep you cooped up, don’t they?” Winona muttered. “Well then you’ve missed out on a very special part of life up here. I’ve got a few dollars for you each, get something to eat. I’m going to stock up on supplies.”


“They’re all different colors,” Arnold said, taking a fistful of bills and coins.


“It’s papermoney,” Winona said. “Well, most of it. They’re not choosy about the exchange rate these days.”


“Can I go with you Winona?” a voice piped up from the back of the group. Victoria turned to find Clara with her hand raised, fluffy hair tied back.


“Teacher’s pet,” Victoria said under her breath, but Winona shrugged.


“Sure. Expect to carry some things for me.”


Winona and Clara began to trudge out together, and Friday was already at the edge of the market, disappearing into the crowd with a handful of toonies.


“We should all stick together,” said Harrow. “That way no one gets lost.”


“How do you use these?” Arnold said, holding his meager currency in perpetually sticky hands.


“You’ve never had to pay for something before?” Victoria said, beginning to walk for the market. The crowd was dense, people in strange clothes spread through the wooden stalls and tents held up by rocks and string.


“At Downing Hill you just say what you want and it’s there,” Arnold said.


Victoria sighed; she forgot how young some of the class was sometimes.


“Out here you get a menu,” Victoria said. “With your options. And everything costs some of your dollars. So you have to choose what you can afford.”


“You only have a certain amount you can spend,” Harrow said. “It’s a limited resource.”


“Harrow,” Victoria grunted.


“Sorry,” Harrow said.


Victoria stepped across the beach, rocks turning beneath her boots, and entered the market, the sun vanishing behind the covered stalls and alleys. The smell of smoke and a hot grill permeated the market, and there were baked goods on little shelves, vegetables she recognized and ones she didn’t. The market was full of more exciting objects, too—knives and cables, worn clothing and blankets, wood carvings and old keys. Everywhere she looked were weathered faces and scarred arms, casting little looks of surprise and curiosity.


She wondered if the attention was because of their faces—and if so, die faster, she thought—or their old-fashioned clothes, or simply because they were new arrivals and had money to spend. A vendor was selling a food she had not tried before—fried potato, cut into strips and salted, poured over with curds of a stringy white cheese and a mysterious gravy. It was hot on the tongue, and savory, and gone too quickly.


“I’m getting this at Downing Hill every day from now on,” Arnold whispered, removing gravy ineffectually from his lapels by wiping with his tie. “How much money do you have left, Harrow?”


“Four,” Harrow said, counting out the loon-faced gold coins.


“We could buy another one,” Arnold said. “Victoria, do you want more?”


“I’m good,” Victoria said, wiping her lips. “You two enjoy. I’m going to take a look around.”


The small round boy went immediately back to the stall, and Harrow shot her a worried glance before following after him.


Finally, Victoria thought, and slipped away into the crowd. Solace was not to be had in the shifting alleys, but at least it was a break from her fellow students—she’d scarcely had a minute of privacy over the last few days, and if one more person asked her a personal question or rephrased what she’d just said, she was going to bite someone’s head off.


She went browsing the stalls—furs from animals she couldn’t identify, the skull of a wolf with too many teeth, tools and vehicle parts and broomsticks. She stopped at a vendor with a row of gleaming objects spread out on a cloth, tea figurines and pieces of costume jewelry. A comb of golden pearl caught her eye, with a delicate pattern like a rising sun.


“Excuse me,” Victoria said. “How much is this?”


“Ten,” said a gruff face on the other side of the table.


Too much, Victoria thought, glancing at her remaining bills. Her attention drifted to a gap in the tents, where she could hear familiar voices. She realized Clara and Winona were on the other side of the stalls, and she tried to catch what she could of the conversation.


“Everyone here seems to know you,” Clara was saying.


“I’m a familiar face around here,” Winona said. “Hey, I said twelve loaves, this is not twelve… thank you.”


“Did you study at Downing Hill then?” Clara said, as Winona piled breads into her arms.


“What about me strikes you as someone who studied at Downing Hill?” Winona said.


Victoria sighed. Another front-of-class student, eager to throw herself on the jagged rocks that were the Downing Hill professors. Clara, at least, didn’t electrocute other students.


“You certainly seem less… formal,” Clara said. “And your teaching style relies less on two-hundred-year-old books.”


“I’ve read the books,” Winona said, shouldering a bag. “But a stuffy classroom is no place to learn about magic.”


Magic, Victoria thought. Now that’s a word you don’t hear in Downing Hill. Who are you, old woman?


“You buying anything?” the merchant said, and Victoria looked back to find someone standing way too close to her; a girl with dark braids and a sullen expression.


“Spying, are we?” Friday said.


“I wasn’t spying on anyone,” Victoria said, and glanced back to the comb, and her handful of bills. “No, sorry. Nothing to buy. Just looking.”


“Something catch your eye?” Friday said. Victoria wondered where on her person the horrifying pet spider was lurking.

“Why do you care?” Victoria said, crossing her arms. “Don’t you have somewhere to be skulking around?”


“I want to buy your allegiance,” Friday said, dark eyes watching Victoria from the shadow of the stalls. She held out a handful of gold and silver coins.


“My what?” Victoria said. “My allegiance? What does that mean?”


“It means if things get ugly, I want you on my side,” Friday said.


“Can you please go for three weeks without stabbing someone or setting something on fire or collecting dead things?” Victoria said, and put her hands on her hips. “Seriously. We all have to be together for way too long as it is, but it would at least be tolerable if you try and act like a normal person for a change.”


Friday looked to the gap between the tents; Clara and Winona had moved on.


“I’m not going to start anything,” Friday mumbled. “I’m just preparing to finish it.”


“Listen, I know it sucks,” Victoria said. “I’m sure some awful thing happened to you and now you’re here, and that’s why you don’t get any letters. But you’re not the only one that bad things happen to. And it doesn’t give you the right to be nasty to everyone else.”

Friday stared straight at her, unblinking, a tremble in her jaw.


“You don’t know anything about me,” she said. “What runs through my head all day long. Where I’ve been. But I know lots about you, Victoria. I know how much, deep down, you need everyone to worship you. Because maybe if they’re lapping at your heels they won’t notice just how empty you are, how terrified you must be to let your guard down for a moment after what happened to Harrow.”


“You can’t hurt me,” Victoria said, a flash of anger hot in her face. The hair bristled on her arms, and she clenched her aching fingers. “And if you do, I’ll hurt you back. I don’t care about you, or what you think. I just want to get this over with so I can go back to forgetting that you exist.”


Friday stood, still staring, breathing a little heavy for comfort, and one of her hands shifted beneath her coat. Maybe it was a knife—or the spider. Friday looked suddenly to the shopkeep, and Victoria glanced over in time to find the merchant tripping against the stall. The table of trinkets went sliding, and a hundred shiny objects scattered across the stones of the shore, the golden comb landing by Victoria’s feet.


“Alliance,” Friday said, and slunk out into the crowd.


Victoria sighed, and watched her leave. The shopkeep was busy scooping up the fallen inventory, back turned to her. Victoria picked up the comb quietly, tucking it into the sleeve of her poet’s shirt as she walked away. She emerged from the alley, and the sun warmed the chills in her spine. She pulled her hair up into a bun, and tucked the comb through.


Jesus, she thought. I can’t wait for summer class to be over.



Interlude 1 - Hired Protection

If you go traveling in the formerly united states of America, you may find yourself in need of added protection. The rain pools in unexpected places, and seldom are you entirely alone—pinpoint eyes or the artificial lenses of the Botulus Corporation drones watch you at every turn. If you are in need of direction and muscle, it can be had for a price.


In the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, a park ranger is said to ride horseback in the night, a solemn guide who does not speak, for they have no head. They do, however, know American Sign Language.


If you see any fox that stares with glowing eyes, it is not to be trusted. Journeys of great personal meaning rarely lead you to the destination you expected. Cease to follow if its eyes begin to disappear, or if it laughs like a cackling demon in the night.


If you find yourself surrounded by a swarm of black motorcycles, you may do well to make an ally of their grim leader. The favor of the Count cannot be bought like that of a simple soldier, but gifts and good will may guarantee safe passage over his ever-shifting territory. After all, he only wants for guests at his dinner table. We go now to a guest.


Story 2 - Proper Morals

“Mister, I think your dog is sick or something,” Buck said. The German Shepherd stared at him with blank white eyes, and gnarled black clots clustered in its mottled fur.


“She’s alright,” the man standing above his dogs said. He had a cropped black beard, and joined his hounds in staring at Buck as he loaded weapons into a crate.


“If you say so,” said Buck. “You folks been up here long?”


“Not especially so,” the one named Jonah said, examining what looked to be an old harpoon gun. “I moved up a few years ago now—used to fish out on the ocean, but my ma was up here, thought I should be closer. And Hector doesn’t usually like it in the north.”


“Nope,” Hector grunted.


“Thank you for staying,” Jonah said quietly, and squeezed Hector’s shoulder. Buck watched the gesture with interest, and thought momentarily of Rick’s hands.


“Your people have any use for traps?” Hector said. In the darker reaches of the Scoutpost armory, a variety of heavy metal devices were stacked in toothy piles.


“Oh sure,” said Buck. “Plenty of hunting we do, I’m sure they’d see use.”


Hector pulled several of the objects up by their chains, and shuffled around his dogs for the crates.


“What about you?” Jonah said, his grey-green eyes sparkling. “Why’d you come up this way, James?”


“You can call me Buck,” Buck said. “Mrs. Wicker is big on, ah, bein’ polite.”

“Buck it is, then,” Jonah said.


“I was just a kid at the time, really,” Buck said. “But my folks thought they could get together with some like-minded folk, start a life of their own, with all them proper morals. Carve out a nice life up here.”


“Those ‘proper morals’ ain’t seem to have treated you too well,” Hector grunted.


Buck glanced around the Scoutpost’s courtyard. He always felt as though Mrs. Wicker would come sailing up like the fog and breathe icy cold judgement down his neck.


“I’ll be honest,” Buck said. “I ain’t too much caught up in all those things. Not how the boss would like anyway. I think if what you do ain’t doin’ no harm, then there ain’t no problem the man upstairs should have with it.”


“I’ve had a similar philosophy,” Jonah said, taking a handful of metal-tipped spears from the wall. “You find it peaceable, living at Fort Freedom?”


“Sure, it’s fine,” Buck said. Jonah gave him a look that made him shudder.


“It’s quiet here,” Buck said, to break the silence. “What’s the code in this place? The rules to do and what not?”


“I’ve got one,” Hector said, sitting on the edge of a crate to remove rust from the jaws of a bear trap. “If you like it somewhere, stay there. If you don’t like it, go somewhere better.”


“Can’t say I entirely agree with that,” Jonah said, with an eyebrow raised. “But that said, it is quiet here. People have their daily hustle and bustle, but you respect each other. Lots of very different people live here, but survival helps you get along, I think.”


“You mentioned an old boss,” Hector said, looking up. “What happened to him?”


Buck looked down at his list for a moment, and cleared his throat.


“He, uh, went wild. Couldn’t lead us no more. So Mrs. Wicker was kind enough to step in.”


“I feel like there’s more to it than that,” Jonah said, eyes catching the sun. Buck gulped.


“That’s all she said,” Buck said. “That is, that’s all there is to it. The truth of it.”


“What made him unpopular?” Hector said. Both of the older men were watching him now, and he tried to focus more on wrapping up the spears in cloth for transport.


“Didn’t say he was,” Buck said.


“Sounds like a coup,” Hector said. “So people wanted him out and this Wicker lady stepped up to bat.”


“He wasn’t right,” Buck said. “Wasn’t right with himself or with… anyone else. He was mean. Cruel for no reason. And he didn’t care about anyone but himself. Mrs. Wicker may have gotten the wives together first, but in the end no one had his back. No one at all. Even when he needed somebody most.”


Hector and Jonah exchanged glances, and Jonah gave a tiny nod. Buck had the sinking sensation that he’d opened his mouth too much.


“I understand,” Jonah said. “You need people who can look out for you. And it sounds like you didn’t have that.”


Jonah put an arm around Hector’s neck absentmindedly, and Buck blinked.


“I still feel bad about it sometimes,” Buck whispered.


“No point,” Hector sighed, and put a hand on Jonah’s for a moment before going back to the sharpening. “Like I said. Better horizons.”


Buck was silent for a moment, and lingered on the edge of speech. How do you live like this, he wanted to ask. Are you happy? What’s it like in this world where no one can stop you?


“Have you almost finished?” Mrs. Wicker said, and Buck nearly jumped out of his skin. He looked behind him to find the gaunt woman standing with crossed arms.


“It should be plenty to get you started,” Jonah said.


“It’s half the armory. I’d hope so,” Hector grunted.


“Perfect,” Mrs. Wicker said. “Thank you for your support. There are certainly enough weapons here to keep our people safe.”


She smiled, and Jonah twitched. Mrs. Wicker turned to Buck.


“James, they’ve already loaded our truck with food and supplies. Get ready to leave.”


“Actually,” Buck said. “I was wondering if I could stay here a little while, seein’ as we’ll be having a parcel of our fellas out here within a day or two?”


Mrs. Wicker stared at him curiously for a moment, frosty blue eyes fixed.


“Out of the question,” she said. “We would never impose on their hospitality more than necessary.”


“I’m sure it would be no trouble,” Jonah said.


“James has responsibilities at Fort Freedom,” Mrs. Wicker nodded with a tight-lipped smile. “Everyone at Fort Freedom has to pull their weight.”


“Well, maybe…” Jonah began.


“It’s alright,” Buck said, and rose on his cane. “She’s right. But thank you both for helping out. See you again, I’d expect.”


Mrs. Wicker’s boy came rolling up in their battered truck, a pile of crates covered with a tarp in the back. Within a few minutes, the weapons had been loaded up, and Buck nodded some goodbyes, and watched from the back window as Mrs. Wicker bid a few last words to the Scoutpost leaders, and their little truck was out and into the wild forest beyond.



Marketing - Security Campaign

Lady Ethel:

It is a priority for this quarter to raise our image of security, protection, and sanctuary. With the Stonemaid activists either detained or de-radicalized, we need now to instill an aura of power, and regain the trust of our customers. My marketing team has come up with several new initiatives to make this a reality.


Firstly, we’re rolling out the ‘Check Me Out’ dream theme. If you’ve undergone the psychological evaluation program we’ve been rolling out since the spring, you can get an exclusive theme for your aesthetic and dream profile. We’ve got a few options here, as you can see. While everyone should have taken this test by the end of the year—it is mandatory, after all—we hope this will help pressure some of the more evasive dreamers, and show everyone that they dream in good company.


Secondly, our new campaign here puts focus on our security measures. In addition to the standard Dreaming Box defenses, we want to highlight our combat drones, clusters, carriers… really anything deadly. We want them to understand that what happened at Box Aries should be strictly impossible…



Story 2, Continued - Proper Morals

The burning heart of Caravus-Kallaz, where gods are rendered into nothingness.


The belly of a Great Destroyer, crowded with teeth and acid vats the size of moons.


The Dream-City of Distant Kazanth, full of cats.


These are all places I would rather be than a stakeholder’s meeting led by Lady Ethel Mallory.


We return now to Buck Silver.


Buck sat in the back seat of the truck as it bounced over the potholes and rocks of the narrow trail. They would emerge eventually, he knew, somewhere north of Fort Freedom. Joshua sat at the wheel, directing them through the forest.


The trees flickering past gave him food for thought. He’d been taught to fear this place all his life, but now the black trees seemed to obscure the Scoutpost as it fell away into the distance.


“James,” Mrs. Wicker said from the passenger seat at length. “What was that about wanting to stay at the Scoutpost?”


“Just for the day, was all,” Buck said. “We ain’t really made friends up here before. I’d like to know ‘em better. That’s all.”


“We won’t be back in a day or two,” Mrs. Wicker said, and closed her eyes.


“Why’s that, ma?” Joshua said, an arm over the wheel.


“We said a day, two at most,” Buck said. “They give us supplies, we bring up some of the boys to help out. Ain’t that the plan?”


“We return home to find a terrible attack has occurred,” Mrs. Wicker said. “It delays us an extra day and a half. We supply our crew with weapons to prevent such a thing from happening again. And instead of fifteen of our fighters, we deliver twenty-three as an apology.”


“Mrs. Wicker, I’ve got no idea what you mean,” Buck said. “You developed the gift of prophecy or something?”


“It’s not prophecy, it’s planning ahead,” Mrs. Wicker said. “James, you seem distracted by these people who live at the Scoutpost. I hope you haven’t forgotten our end goal.”


“You haven’t told me any end goals,” Buck said. “Not even any beginning ones. And everything I’ve seen says these are good folks. I think we can rely on them.”


“Our enemies are the wicked, our opponents the unjust,” Mrs. Wicker said.


“They’ve treated us like friends,” Buck said. “I thought that’s what we were.”


“I don’t like you arguing with me, James,” Mrs. Wicker said. “It doesn’t suit you. You’re upset because you don’t understand yet, but you will soon enough. These people are not your friends. We are your family.”


“Joshua, what did you think of ‘em?” Buck said, desperate to divert her focus.


“Eh,” Joshua shrugged. “Those people are pretty weird.”


“Sure, maybe,” Buck said. “I’m sure we seem plenty odd too, with our set ways and our preaching about everything.”


“Stop the truck, Joshua,” Mrs. Wicker said.


“We’re in the middle of nowhere, Ma,” Joshua said.


“Don’t make me say it twice,” she said, and the truck came rolling to a halt amidst the black pines.


“I’m sorry, Mrs. Wicker,” Buck said. Her still eyes watched him from the rearview mirror. “Didn’t mean to offend you or nothin’.”


“This isn’t about offending me, James,” she said, and as she spoke began to remove an item from her purse. “My feelings have nothing to do with this. These people are enemies of ours. They raise their children without discipline or moral direction. They hold pagan signs and ceremonies. They do not drive out homosexuality; instead they glorify it. Our beliefs will never align with theirs and they will destroy our way of life if we let them. But I am glad we went to visit, because it reminds me how precious the community we have built at Fort Freedom really is. And I know now even more that what is going to happen next is the Lord’s will. But I am worried about you, James.”


A thin piece of plastic lay in her hands, and she held it tightly, testing its flexibility.


“Because of your proclivities, I think they see a weakness in you. An opportunity. They will try and pull you back into sin with them, James. We cannot have that. You lack discipline, and we must be disciplined if we are to complete our work. I spare neither the staff nor the rod. Get out of the truck.”


“Come on now, Ma,” Joshua said from the driver’s wheel, and immediately there was a flash of her rod, and a red welt across his knuckles. Buck winced.


“Now,” she said, looking at Buck in the mirror. Buck breathed, and his hands shook from the confrontation. Discipline, she said, but he had seen the look in her eyes before.


“No,” he said. “I’m not getting out. I ain’t one of your kids, Mrs. Wicker.”


She sat for a moment, the plastic in her hands deathly still.


“Takes us home, Joshua,” she said, and tucked it away.


“Yes ma,” Joshua grunted.


“James, your disobedience will have consequences,” she said. “These Scoutpost individuals are a dark influence on you. Going forward you will not be included in any dealings with them, and you will not return with our security group.”


“That ain’t fair,” Buck said. Mrs. Wicker said nothing more, though, and closed her eyes again.


The sunlight flashed on Buck’s face as they drove, but he felt that a ray of hope he had barely known had disappeared, and he dwelled in an abyss as dark as the trees.



Interlude 2 - Indescribable Names

When a human is born, they do not know what they are good at, or what they will enjoy doing most in the world as they learn to live in it. In the same way, when Indescribables awake, we are not given our domains.


It is aeons, for some, before we find a purpose that fascinates us, correlates with our abilities and size and interest. It is then that we are given a name, and to that we may cling for a billion years to come. Some never find a calling at all, and drift nameless in fields of dead stars, drawn from one curiosity to the next.


Syrensyr, Reclaimer of Fire has his burning Industry, and hoards all the riches of the universe. Tolshotol, Who Guards a Thousand Suns, lays claim to his vast empires of stars. Even Xyzikxyz, Emptiness Between Worlds, accumulates secrets and experiments in the void.


I have never been entirely content to sit in one place. Perhaps this is why I left my post at the gates; was pulled into worlds of knowledge and dream and creation, and why I speak to you now, who slumber across this universe.


We go now to one who, regrettably, also speaks in dream.



Story 3 - Kick This Thing

Lady Ethel closed her eyes, and fell asleep with the gentle embrace of her glasses.


The conference room had not changed—Oswald’s memory, after all, only held the glory days. His stone conference table was laid out with a glass top to protect the rune-covered surface, and there was the man himself, sitting at the end with his hands folded.


“Melanie Flores? Really?” Lady Ethel said, walking in. The galaxies outside the windows spun with blurry light. “There weren’t any podiatrists or meal ladies you liked better?”


“I didn’t ask you here to talk about Melanie,” Oswald said. He dreamt himself as the man of the magazine covers, brilliant and rectangular. “I have fed you, and fed you well. How dare you bite my hand.”


“Did I threaten your ego? Oh, I’m sorry.” Ethel said, wreathed in her own timeless glamor. She took a seat at his table, and put her heels up.


“Hello?” Oswald said, and mocked picking up a phone. “Oh, it’s for you, Lady Ethel. Someone’s calling to remind you that I am your boss and you get paid to do what you’re told. Also to get your filthy shoes off my table, dream or otherwise.”


“What’s this about, Oswald?” she said. “Let’s be honest. You and I run this country. If you have an issue with me, we deal with it. You don’t put some little puppet girl between us.”


“I will do whatever I damn well please,” Oswald said. “Why did you barge into Box Andromeda, scare my people and chitchat with my Riot?”


“I had a suspicion about her, and I was right,” Lady Ethel said. “She’s fragile. Valerie almost certainly knows that’s not her daughter.”


“She’s been dancing just fine,” Oswald said, leaning back in his chair and spinning to face the stars.


“I just don’t know how you expected Anderson to create an entire person for you in a lab,” Ethel said. “This is a man who talks to lab rats more than people.”


“At least he was able to give me a Riot Maidstone at all,” Oswald said. “You wasted weeks traipsing around No One Cares, Ontario and came back empty-handed. For all we know the real Riot is getting mauled by foxes. Bears. Whatever lives up there.”


“I could have had her with more time,” Ethel crooned. “You rushed things. And it’s going to create trouble.”


“I’ll be honest, Lady Ethel,” he said, standing up to look out at the universe through the glass. “There are lots of troubles on my plate lately, and you’ve made yourself one of them.”


“I didn’t even hurt her,” Ethel said. “And Melanie’s sensitivities will recover. This isn’t the only reason you asked me here.”


“No,” Oswald sighed. “No, it is not.”


He turned away from the window, and stared at her with his head half-cocked.


“I need to know I can trust you,” he said. “This Stonemaid business has been damaging, tremendously so. It can’t happen again. I don’t care about Valerie or her ugly daughter or her ugly music—I’m more of an Elvis man. But we cannot have people losing faith in my company, and we cannot have them waking up in their dreaming pods wondering what the hell happened and what’s wrong with them and does anybody know.”


“Still no sign of the saboteurs for Box Aries?” Ethel said.


“No,” Oswald grimaced. “And now I’ve got a million people who know too much to be safely returned to the Prime Dream. Lifetime value, down the drain.”


“I’ve been trying to buy you time with that,” Ethel said. “What else do you need?”


“I need someone to manage our image. Oh wait. I hired someone to do that. A chief marketing officer. And guess who sits in that chair? It’s you. So stop being jealous of a petty press secretary and start doing your job.”


Ethel sighed. “There it is. That I can do, Oswald.”


“Alright,” Oswald said. “You’re off the hook. For now. No more funny business. We ride this out smooth and we might just kick this thing.”


“I wasn’t wasting my time at Box Polaris,” Ethel said. “I found something that may interest you.”


Oswald raised an eyebrow. “If it’s more of your giant bugs I’ve got no need.”


“Much better than that,” Ethel said, and produced an object in her hands—a parcel of books and papers, wrapped in red twine. “Something you’ve been looking for a long time.”



Outro - Protectors

Protectors. We enter the universe so full of trust. That the ones who came before us will take care of us, that those sworn to protect us will honor their call. It would be a simpler world, I think, if they did.


But our protectors and our guardians are, like us, still finding their path themselves, and some in desperation or fear or malice reach their claws to heaven, and cannot rend a tear in god, so they turn their hands instead on those in their power. This, they say, will teach you a lesson. This, they say, is the way it has to be. We have never lived without pain, and neither will you.


It is not until much later—sooner, however, than you are ready for—when you will have another looking up to you, and be offered a choice. To praise or to humiliate, to welcome or to banish, to protect or to destroy.


You have been given wounds, but they need not guide your hands. You have been hurt, but in a universe of pain, you have the opportunity to show someone the kindness you deserved.


Until the suns burst and the fire of souls burns away, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting at the foot of your bed for your return to the Hallowoods.



The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Familiar Face', 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!