Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Bert as usual), Violence, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Smoking
Intro - Mr. Riddle
You open your eyes, and stare at the sun high in the morning air. Long have you dreamed, and images of a world on fire, of silver boxes in rows, of a starless sky fade from your mind. You climb from your bed, and a single thought dawns on you like the daylight: you are late for work. The trails are familiar to you, and you find the door in the hillside as though it is your home.
‘Hello’, you say at the door, and a voice responds after a moment, asking who you are. You remember so little, but your name comes to you immediately, as if stored on your tongue. You don’t work here anymore, they say, you haven’t for twenty years, that it cannot be you.
That is impossible, you want to say; I only slept for a moment, but a different voice comes to speak, and reassure you. No work today, he says. You’re not on the schedule; this is your day off. Why don’t you go have a nice long sleep?
You are tired, you realize. You could use some sleep. You return to your bed, and sink into the silt, and the first words you dream are Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I’m sitting in the corner of a garden. It is home to a bench and a trellis, and the bushes that hem it in help to conceal the world outside. It is known politely by its transitory residents as the Quiet Thinking Corner, and today a small toy drum sits on the bench. The theme of tonight’s episode is Stations.
Story 1 - Quiet Thinking Corner
“I hate the quiet thinking corner,” Al said, although there was no one but the flowers to hear him. He’d had so much time alone already; how was more supposed to help? In this enclosure of the inner gardens, there was only the breeze shifting the bushes, and the sun glinting off the little silver dent in his drum.
He looked down at his hands, all the inside parts captured in jagged white light. He clenched them into shaking fists, and thought of his mother, and Percy, and his old toy train, and other things he thought he’d never see again. The light in his exposed bones curled like flame, but didn’t quite take shape, and Al sighed. He was going to have to work on that.
“You know the rules, Russell,” the voice of Miss Blum said, interrupting his thoughts. Her brown dress and rolled-up hair emerged from the arbor a moment later, with a boy Al’s age in tow. He had sandy-colored hair and a yellow jacket dotted with Scoutpost badges, and a wad of bloody fabric pressed to his face.
“I didn’t start it,” Russell muttered, flopping on the bench beside Al’s drum.
“I doubt your mother will care,” Miss Blum said. “Think about how you could have resolved that situation differently. You have that in common with Al here.”
The teacher vanished back beyond the lilacs, leaving Russell to glance around the enclosure, and the boy stared at Al’s drum. Al drifted up to him, watching the blank look in his eyes—curiosity or fear, Al wasn’t quite sure.
“Hello?” Russell said.
“Boo,” Al said, and watched Russell fall off the bench. Al glowed a little brighter; struggling to keep the focus he needed to be seen in the daylight.
“That’s so cool,” Russell whispered, picking his handkerchief out of the gravel. “How do you do that?”
Al hung for a moment in the air above the bench. “Do what?”
“The flying,” Russell said. Al looked down at his own feet; his bony toes drifted inches off the ground.
“It just sort of works,” Al said. “I can’t feel the ground or anything else.”
“Can you feel this?” Russell said, poking a stick into Al’s ribs. It glimmered from within his empty chest, and waved around where his heart was supposed to be.
“This is supposed to be the quiet thinking corner,” Al said, and vanished again. Russell sat for a moment kicking the gravel before breaking the silence.
“So, what are you in for?”
“I got in a fight with Cole,” Al said, and kicked at the gravel himself, although his foot clipped through its space. “He keeps picking on me. That’s what he was doing when that frog monster picked him up. I wish it had gobbled him up before it left.”
“Cole is a jerk,” Russell nodded. “He stole my favorite knife.”
“You could take it back,” Al said. “You can actually punch him.”
“I can also get punched,” Russell said.
“Is that why your nose is bleeding?” Al said.
“Nope,” Russell sighed. “That just happens. Miss Blum said I was being disruptive in class.”
Al was quiet for a moment, glancing around the bushes.
“Do you like baseball?” Al said.
“Baseball is fun,” Russell said. “Do you play?”
“Not really,” Al said, settling near the bench. “I haven’t quite figured out how to hold a bat yet.”
“You’d be a great hitter,” Russell said. “No one could catch you.”
“I think they only need to touch the base before I do,” Al said. “Which is also a problem.”
“Well, you’ve got hide-and-seek covered at least,” Russell said. “Do you wanna go?”
“Go?” Al said, an echo of authority in his head. “You have to sit and think about your actions until someone comes to get you.”
“You can leave anytime,” Russell said. “Or at least I do. Come on, there’s something cool I want to show you.”
Al looked at the boy, trying to determine if it was a trap—one of Cole’s buddies trying to pull a fast one. But there was nothing of Cole’s cold glare in Russell’s wide-eyed, bloody face.
“Okay,” Al said. “But you’ll need to carry my drum.”
Al followed Russell out of the garden, the straps that held his body to the earth trailing behind the toy drum. Russell held it beneath his arm, glancing back occasionally to check if the grown-ups were watching. They made for somewhere Al had not been before, scaling the wooden ramps on the inside of the Scoutpost and through a few narrow doors. Russell peered around each corner like a spy in an enemy base. Finally, he carried Al’s drum into a small room high in the Scoutpost, and shut the door as quietly as he could.
Al drifted in the darkness, lighting up a room compact and cluttered. Green light shone from the dials of a sprawling machine covered in knobs and twisted cables.
“This is what you wanted to show me?” Al said.
“Not exactly,” Russell said. “This is the radio room.”
Russell crept over to the gleaming apparatus, and began to adjust the switches, and Al shuddered as static filled the room.
“Are we allowed to be in here?” Al said.
“Nope,” Russell whispered, and grinned. “So keep an eye on the door.”
Al hovered for a moment among the scattered papers and strange metal equipment. He’d spent his whole life following the rules of adults—what if they found out? What if he broke their trust? But also, this was a secret mission of sorts, and he had never played around with a radio before, and he wanted this more than anything. He drifted over to the door and pushed his skull through its surface, glancing around the hall outside.
“All clear,” he whispered.
“Awesome,” said Russell, and there was a crackle of life in the speakers. “There. I got it.”
Al hovered back over to listen. A voice was there in the static, so quiet that Al could barely hear.
“No, you can’t do that,” it said in a fuzzy burble. “It’s not fair.”
“Do you know who that is?” Russell said, sitting on a little metal chair by the desk.
“No idea,” Al said.
“Darn,” Russell said. “People call it the Crackler, but I thought maybe it’s a ghost like you.”
Al frowned. “I don’t know that many ghosts. I think Percy is the only one who’s still around.”
“Oh,” Russell said. “You can’t go into the radio or something?”
“I’ve never tried,” Al said, and hovered over to the console. He felt no draw from the machine, no alarming sense of gravity. But as he drew in close, reaching a hand of bone out to the controls, the dials ebbed and flashed, and the lights of the radio flickered brighter.
“Hello,” Al whispered.
“Hello, hello, who’s there?” the Crackler said. “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is X-ray Charlie Charlie Foxtrot. X-ray Charlie Charlie Foxtrot. X-ray Charlie Charlie…”
Russell scooted his chair away from the radio, hanging on to the edge. “You talked to the Crackler,” he said.
“I don’t know if I want to talk to the Crackler,” Al said.
“I see you,” the Crackler said. “I see you.”
Russell switched off the radio, and the green dials fell into darkness, only a few blinking lights left in the shadow.
“That gave me the creeps,” Al said.
“That was so cool,” Russell said. “Hey Al? Do you wanna be my friend?”
“Sure,” Al said, and the light in him made the room bright. “I’d like that plenty.”
Interlude 1 - Warm Light in the Wasteland
What were you doing when the world came falling down around you, dreamer? Did it matter to you as much as it did before? Do you carry those same hopes for your life, or have they been forgotten in this new age of rain and all-encompassing forest?
The world as you knew it did not disappear overnight, but nevertheless many were stranded in the transformation. Those who moved into their local Dreaming Box were gone from the world, leaving paperwork unfinished and their stores closed, cities stripped away one soul at a time. Some, however, still continue to make their way. They have seen storms before, they say, and this too shall pass, and life will carry on as it always has.
In Southern Ohio, Monty Lee bakes for the sparse travellers who pass on the highway, a single warm light in a grey wasteland. After all, America’s last donut shop is sure to be its best.
In the Gulf of Mexico, locals say that they sometimes see light on the horizon from the derelict oil rigs, stations half-submerged by a rising ocean. They say the spirits of the old divers still haunt those rusting towers, never told that their work was done.
In Syracuse, New York, America’s largest shopping complex houses a new host of buyers and sellers, and they deal in far more than cheesecake and high-end apparel. What coin they can make there, they can also spend, and postpone the memory of the world outside a little longer.
Some small towns in Nevada, they say, never heard that the world ended at all, and remain lost to time in the sea of sand, going about their lives cheerfully in a landscape where the rain does not fall.
In forgotten basements of municipal buildings, scurrilous employees still continue their decades-long projects, and have time enough at last to get things done. Their forms and documentation, of course, will see no audience beside themselves. Then again, that is exactly what I am doing, though I record in nightmare instead of magnetic tape. We go now to one who carries on with their old work.
Story 2 - The Real Diggory Graves
It was quiet, and Diggory did not mind the quiet. Hungry they had been for company, for an end to solitude, but the hum of the tires on the road reminded them of the cricket-song and frog-chorus of the wetlands they used to wander.
It was peaceful, even—the red gleam of Ray’s taillights ahead, flashing in the road markers, and the sound of their friends sleeping in the back of the RV, and the reverberation of the wheel in their hands. Great trees towered on either side of the highway ahead of them, branches crowding the road and blotting out the stars.
“Percy?” Diggory whispered. “How are you doing?”
“I’m okay,” Percy said, a whisper of a smile in the passenger seat. “You’re doing a good job driving.”
“Thank you,” Diggory said. They crossed for a moment out of the forest into an expanse of shadowed fields, towers of dead metal and broken wires in the distance. “For it being the first time in my memory, I am not doing too poorly I think.”
“When we first met you played a song on the piano,” Percy said. “And you can sew and throw cars and all sorts of things. Does doing them ever remind you of the old parts? Old people?”
Diggory glanced at the stitches across the back of their hand.
“They used to, and I would be paralyzed. Dream, perhaps. But I… spoke, with the others. While Walt was putting me back together. They are not so loud in my thoughts now. Or perhaps I fill more of the silence with thoughts of my own.”
“My head is too filled with thoughts of my own,” Percy sighed, eyes and drifting curls caught in the low glow of the dashboard.
“Anything you wish to talk about?” Diggory said.
“Nothing I haven’t already said,” Percy said.
“I still would like to hear it,” Diggory said. “If only to hear you speak.”
“I wish I could really be here,” Percy said, turning to Diggory. “Sit in this chair. Take up this space. Be more than an afterthought. I feel like you’re the only one who sees me.”
“I think I see you better than most,” Diggory said. “Which is lucky for me. But they do not like or respect you any less, I think, for your opacity.”
“I know,” Percy said. “But it’s hard not to feel that way. And I’ve noticed your little reminders. I just wish they didn’t need to be reminded that I’m here.”
“I understand,” said Diggory. “Perhaps I can speak to them about it.”
“It’s not… it’s subconscious,” Percy said. “The problem isn’t them, it’s that I’m dead. You can’t fix that.”
“No,” Diggory said. “But perhaps it can be made easier.”
“That’s not even the point,” Percy said.
“You wish you had a body?” Diggory said, glancing over.
“I wish I was alive,” Percy said. “We have friends now. And I wish I’d had them back when I was just a normal kid with some harsh parents. All I ever wanted was a life like this. And now it’s here, and I can’t really be a part of it. Do you know how hard that is?”
“Ray has a body of sorts,” Diggory said. “We could ask him how…”
“I’m going to get some space,” Percy muttered, and faded from the chair, pulled into emptiness.
“Percy?” Diggory whispered, but the passenger seat remained dark.
Back to the silence, Diggory thought. There was a burst of static in their ears then, and Diggory looked around for the radio box, but none of the buttons they pushed seemed to turn off the sound.
“Welcome back to the show,” a voice was saying. “I think we have time for one more caller tonight. We’ve got someone on the line from Kentucky with a unique issue. Caller, can you share with us your name? You are on the air.”
It was silent for a moment, and Diggory searched in vain for the right button to turn off the radio, glancing between the dashboard and the road ahead.
“Caller, your name please,” the voice said. Diggory looked up.
“Are you speaking to me?”
“That’s right,” the voice answered. “Welcome to the show. If you can please tell the audience who you are.”
“Diggory Graves,” Diggory said, tapping the radio button on the dashboard. It did nothing to quiet the sound. “Who are you?”
“This is the late-late show courtesy of the Phantom Station,” the voice said. “Diggory, let’s begin by asking the most important question here—what do you want?”
“I want to turn this noise off,” Diggory said. “My friends are trying to sleep.”
“Oh, you’ll find this isn’t bothering anyone,” the voice said. “Indulge our listeners. What do you want more than anything else in the world?”
“I…” Diggory looked around the cabin; it seemed darker somehow, hushed, and there was only the hypnotic glow of the road ahead. “I would want for Percy to be happy.”
“Oh that barely qualifies,” the voice said. “The audience wants to know what you want. It’s very nice of you to be so concerned with the needs of others, though. It sounds like a lot of those pressures end up on you. It’s often the case for our callers.”
“What is this for?” Diggory said. “I did not call you.”
“We are here to solve your problem,” the host said. “That’s what we do on the late-late show.”
“I want to rescue Riot’s mother from Box Andromeda,” Diggory said. “But also to follow my heart and go north. These things conflict.”
“And yet neither of them are things that you want for yourself,” the voice said. “Let’s get to know the real Diggory Graves. People all around you seem to want something from you; a solution to their problems. Do you have a hard time saying no, Diggory?”
“No,” said Diggory. “They are my friends. I love them. I do not like to see them in pain. I want them to be happy. And to go north is my own task, at least.”
“In a manner of speaking, perhaps,” the station said. “But there’s a hunger in you, Diggory, deep down. Beneath all the thread and the fire and the burdens of others. Tell us about that.”
“I thought I was lonely,” Diggory said. “And the feelings lessened when I met Percy. When I had someone else to see me.”
“The feelings lessened, or changed?” said the static.
“Changed, I suppose,” Diggory said. “Because now I am seen. These people care about me, I think. But I hoped that when that happened, they would look on me and I would know who they saw.”
“It must be complicated for you, with so many embers in one flame,” the station said.
“It is difficult. Everything I have belonged to someone else,” Diggory said. “This skin and bone of mine belongs to people I have never met. This thread to Irene Mend and to Walter Pensive. I know how to drive because someone else learned how over many hours. And their pieces make me everything I am, but also make me nothing. People keep telling me that I am whole, but I do not know what that whole is supposed to be.”
“You want to be accepted,” the station said.
“I want to accept myself,” Diggory said. “And have no more doubts. I want to know if I am broken, or if everyone walks without knowing where they are going, without really knowing who they are, and simply do so without complaint.”
“It’s a complicated thing, what you want,” the station said, “but it is possible.”
“Is it?” Diggory said, staring at the radio dials.
“Certainly,” said the Phantom Station. “Diggory, our very audience is formed of people just like you—souls in fragments, looking to be whole again. I think you have a wonderful opportunity to help yourself and countless others like you.”
“How could I do that?” said Diggory.
“It’s simple,” said the Phantom Station. “I would like to invite you to join our program.”
Marketing - A Little Band Called Stonemaiden
Valerie: Hi there, dreamers. I’m Valerie Maidstone. When I was younger, I was in a little band called Stonemaiden. I never knew how big it would become, or how many people would end up listening to my voice. I said some things that were pretty irresponsible.
Riot: Like what, mom?
Valerie: Nothing I should repeat! But when I had Riot, I realized just how important family is. That even though the future can be scary, we need to stick together.
Riot: That’s right. And it’s been so great to be together again in the Prime Dream.
Valerie: If I had realized how safe, and secure, and trustworthy the Prime Dream experience is, I would never have been concerned at all.
Riot: I’m just glad we can be a part of it now.
Valerie: I completely condemn the actions of the Stonemaids. And whether you were part of their so-called revolution or not, I highly recommend you comply with Botco’s new ‘Check Me Out’ program.
Riot: So we can keep living safely together, like one big happy dreaming family.
Valerie: I can’t wait for us to move forward together.
Riot: But families are supposed to be honest with each other. To tell each other the truth.
Valerie: …Riot, what are you doing?
Riot: If anyone is out there listening, and I know you are, it’s not over. There are so many lies and I don’t know where to start. But we’re going to figure it out. You can trust me. And I think you can trust Lady Ethel Mallory…
Story 2, Continued - The Real Diggory Graves
Life is about the little pleasures. And seeing Botulus Corporation propaganda falling into shambles on air is one of them. I hope to see a day in the near future when they cease to speak entirely, and no longer interrupt my programming with their inane ploys for power. How I will rejoice when that day comes.
We return now to Diggory Graves.
“What do you mean by ‘join your program’?” Diggory said. The red lights of a radio tower flashed in their rearview mirror, but the road ahead of the RV was blanketed in a moonless night—Diggory could not see Ray’s lights ahead, nor hear the sound of the others sleeping.
“You just have to say yes,” the host said. “You could do so much good, Diggory. You want to know how to be at peace with yourself, for all your complexities. We can help you with that. Our audience can help you understand.”
“My friends need me,” Diggory said, although the words of the station were heavy in their mind. “Much as I would like to know others who feel this way.”
“Don’t you think your friends would rather see you happy?” said the station. “If not, are they really your friends?”
Diggory was still for a moment. The hum of the tires seemed to blur the world, the landscape reduced to shadowed lines and those red lights in the distance.
“I am sure they want me to be happy,” Diggory said. “But I want to help them too, if I can.”
“You say you want to start feeling like one person—like yourself. The first step is to start pursuing the things you want to do.”
“That sounds correct,” Diggory said. A tabby cat came slinking out of the darkness of the RV behind them, eyes like green discs in the shadow. The cat leaped into their lap and hissed.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime offer, Diggory,” the station said. “You have to understand we don’t extend these invitations often. But you are very special, and you deserve to be recognized for everything that you are.”
“Percy?” Diggory said, but the ghostly boy did not appear. “Riot?”
“These decisions are never easy to make,” the station continued. “But you have to choose your happiness over others. It is better to make one uncomfortable leap than to stand for a lifetime of misery.”
The world seemed as small as the RV’s cabin, darkness shrouding even the headlights ahead of them, and there was only Diggory sitting with a cat in their lap, hackles raised, and a dozen red lights like eyes glinting in the mirrors, brighter with each moment, like spotlights hanging in the near distance.
“I have known misery, and it does not live in me now,” Diggory said. “The happiness I have chosen is Percy, who I hold dearly. I have chosen Riot, and Olivier, and now Moth. And this small cat. These people make me happy, and I realize in talking to you that no one gave me that. I found them on my own. I do not know yet how all my pieces fit together, but I chose to take care of these people, and to come here, and to drive tonight. This is a life and it belongs to me. I am the real Diggory Graves. I will not join your program, although I thank you for the offer.”
There was a sound like the screech of a microphone in Diggory’s head, and a pain they had rarely felt piercing their mind, and they threw on the brakes, the howl of the tires joining the cacophony. The world swerved ahead of the windshield, and the highway divider came skidding closer, scraping the side of the RV. Ahead of them, Ray was on the road, sliding to a stop.
A peculiar silence fled from Diggory’s head, and with it returned the voices of their friends, and the mewling of the cat with its claws in Diggory’s legs.
“Diggory, what’s wrong?” Percy was saying, burning bright beside them.
“What the heck?” Riot was saying, falling out of the loft bed. “Is everyone okay?”
Olivier grunted as they removed a bruise from their head with the wave of a hand, and Moth gasped as though woken from a deep sleep.
“Diggory?” Percy repeated, but Diggory’s attention lay on a shifting figure in the wing mirror—a thing like a radio tower that crossed the distant stars, with long limbs that picked across the interstate, and a dozen eyes dotted like satellite dishes across its body. The lights vanished into the trees as the last whisper of static faded from Diggory’s thoughts.
“Diggory, no offense, but I’m going to drive,” Riot said, and tapped them on the shoulder.
“Thank you,” Diggory said, and shifted over to the passenger seat. “Riot? I am glad to be here.”
“That’s… good to know?” Riot said, opening the door to hop out of the RV and inspect the side.
“I thought the other-people’s-memories flashbacks were done,” Percy said.
“I think they all belong to me,” Diggory said. “Riot, I am sorry about the damage. Is it extensive?”
“Nah,” Riot said, climbing back into the RV, and slamming the door shut. She scooted in the chair, and adjusted the mirrors, and turned the keys again. “It’s seen way worse.”
Interlude 2 - Out Of Time
Be not deceived by your telescopes—when you direct your glassy stare to the heavens, you do not look upon emptiness. You see very little with your fishlike eyes. This expanding universe is formed of hundreds of billions of galaxies, a web of existence pulled taut, and you gaze along a single thread looking for the spider.
It is empty if you cannot see the life that blankets countless worlds under strange stars, the places folded away from linear space, and the cities upon asteroids and scattered islands that linger in the void.
There is also the weight of time, which I am sure seems quite impassable to you, contained as you are within the gravity of a single world. Even one of your timepieces, though, runs slower in orbit than on the surface of the earth. Imagine how it is for me, then, in all places in this universe at once.
I do not know the future, but the past is everywhere still unfolding. There are kingdoms built beneath suns whose light has not yet reached your world, and prosperous empires may be to you still laying their first stones.
Still, my attention lingers with you, and my perception of time with it. Were I to travel too far and for too long, I might become lost, and return to find your people gone entirely. I watch you carefully, dreamer. I think your last moments are important, for all they are worth, and they will not go unseen as a flicker in time, but broadcast across this universe in the thoughts of all who dream.
Somewhere, a being that is soon to invent fire and carry their kind into their stone age closes their eyes and dreams of distant pines and desolate highways in an unknowable, impossible world.
We go now to one who is also out of time.
Story 3 - Old Destiny
Yaretzi stood in the evening light, a brisk wind in her fur and jewelry. The sign in front of her read ‘Destiny’, in 15-foot glowing letters, and a demon and a revenant stood on either side of her.
“Do we have to stop here,” she said. “It smells bad.”
“It’s destiny,” Polly replied.
“Say that one more time and your destiny may become my lunch,” she said.
“That’s a big house,” Mort said. It certainly was. The building beyond the sign towered like a great glass temple, expanding across the horizon. Twisted overpasses surrounded the parking lot on all sides. The sun cast long shadows across the expanse of decayed asphalt, and a cluster of vehicles in all shapes and colors were parked by the entrance. Dim lights glowed from within the greenish revolving doors.
“It’s a shopping mall,” Polly sniffed. “One of the largest in the country.”
“It says there’s a New York Welcome Center,” said Mort. “We should go get welcome.”
“I don’t think any of us will be welcome the way we look presently,” Polly said.
“We do not hide ourselves for the comfort of others,” Yaretezi said.
“Listen, the last time we square-danced with humans you almost got fed to a bird,” Polly said. He tapped his cane, and his horns—wisps of fire that drifted above his evening hat—disappeared in the wind. “I have no desire to rescue you again.”
Yaretzi snorted, but with a shake of her head allowed the wolf to fall away from her skin. It did not leave her so much as return to the inside, a torrent of teeth and fur and sunlight that beat in her heart like gold.
“There,” Polly sniffed. “As dignified as you ever get.”
“You do not approve of my attire?” Yaretzi said, tilting her head.
“You look like a disgruntled cowboy. Or maybe someone who’s about to teach a martial arts lesson.”
“I am,” Yaretzi grinned, teeth still sharp.
“What’s my disguise?” Mort said.
“Hm,” Polly said, looking over Mort’s gigantic metal shell, and the undead seabird perched on his riveted shoulder. “I’m afraid you may have to wait outside.”
“Aw,” said Mort. “I wanna see inside.”
“Is there nothing you can do, Apollyon?” Yaretzi said.
“Oh, let me see,” Polly muttered, and fished in his suit jacket for a book. He flipped through its stiff pages for a moment. “That will do. Voss nen xorn Syrensyr…”
He reached out the cane, and a flicker of light leaped from its head to collide with the gull on Mort’s shoulder; its eyes shone like embers.
“Don’t hurt Bert!” Mort said.
“Om nen xorn Syrensyr,” Polly continued, waving the cane at Mort, who promptly collapsed, leaving a crater in the pavement.
“This is weird,” Mort said, as Bert the seagull hopped up and flapped what remained of its wings.
“This will let you look through Bert’s eyes for a little while,” Polly said. “I don’t believe seagulls are quite at home in shopping centers either, but it will raise less of a ruckus. Go look around all you want.”
“I can fly!” Mort said, and Bert took to the air, feathers drifting behind as it wheeled over the parking lot, making for the mall’s ocean of skylights.
“That looks so much more unsettling than I expected,” Polly said.
“I am sure he appreciates it,” Yaretzi said, turning to the monolith. “Let us go explore.”
A thousand smells caught Yaretzi’s attention as they approached—roasting food and sizzling butter, the sweat of humankind, soaps and perfumes, smoke and gunpowder. There was another scent, something dead, although she could not identify what. Mort sailed over their heads as they approached the revolving doors, and with a push stepped into a palace of treasures.
Glass and decorative panels lined every surface, stretching up into the sky, and people pushed past her on all sides.
“I have never seen a structure like this,” Yaretzi whispered.
“This is just the entrance hall,” Polly said, and escorted her further inside. The ceilings opened up to even greater heights, and allowed a full view of the changing sky above. Huge balconies towered on either side, six floors high, and each of their walls was filled with storefronts. Merchants sold hot food and antiques, old machines and potted plants, weapons and jewelry, vehicles and stationary, art and hunting gear, spread out in a myriad of colors across the center.
“What would you like to see first?” Polly said.
“I do not know where to begin,” Yaretzi breathed, finding her way to a railing where she could look out on the floors beneath as well as above.
“Have you spent a lot of time with humans?” Polly said, leaning on the rail beside her.
“I am human, Apollyon,” she said. “But I missed much when I slept, it seems.”
“Less than you’d think,” Polly said, plucking a cigarette from the air and blowing on the end until it caught aflame. “A few more wars, a few more big buildings. But people are the same. They’ve hardly changed at all.”
“Have you spent much time among humankind?” Yaretzi said, and an alarming thought crossed her mind. “Were you here when my home was destroyed?”
“I was not,” Polly said, breathing out smoke. “But for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. That time would have found me working through stacks of audits that never seemed to get smaller. I have picked up little assignments from time to time, back before the quarantine days. I hate a number of things about this planet, birds included. But there’s a lovely art and life and fashion that I enjoy as well. I was sad to see it come crashing to an end so soon.”
“It saddens me too,” Yaretzi said. “I was young when I made my covenant, like many of the wolves. I kept my life but gave up all that made it precious.”
“Did you know many other wolves?” Polly said, staring at an elegant display of clothing a few floors up. “You always struck me as the solitary type.”
“We ran together for a while,” Yaretzi said. “But soon they would scatter. Some went back and tried to begin families, reunite with their loved ones. I do not think it often ended well. Others fell prey to greater beasts—the blood-drinkers found us not long after. Perhaps others still sleep, dreaming that their duty is complete. I did not find a family among them to replace the one I lost.”
“Have you ever been to a movie?” Polly said.
“Are those the moving pictures?” said Yaretzi. “I have not.”
“I see a little sign for a cinema up there,” Polly said, standing up from the rail. “Come on. I think it’s one of the grander human experiences.”
Yaretzi followed him through the dazzling passages of the mall, and into a glass box that rose through the floors towards the darkening sky. An ascent to the stars, Yaretzi thought, perhaps the only one she would ever embark on.
There was a chamber at the top with a hole in the floor, and the entire mall spread out beneath. A man with a beard like grey corn husks stood behind a little counter, and conversed with Polly for a moment before handing him a few paper tickets, and pointed to a set of cavelike openings in the wall on the far side.
“We’re in,” Polly said as he returned. “The selection is a bit eclectic, but this is a black-and-white film—I think they’d call it a monster movie. I thought it’d be a memorable first time.”
“Will we be in danger?” Yaretzi said, following him past glittering letters that read ‘concessions’ towards a dark doorway.
“It might be a little frightening,” Polly said. “But I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t handle.”
Yaretzi nodded, and accompanied the demon into darkness.
Inside was a great and shadowed space, like the tomb where she had slept. Dim lights illuminated rows of comfortable chairs that faced red curtains, dull faces watching from the aisles, and Polly took a seat near the center.
“How do they continue to do all this?” Yaretzi said, sinking into a chair beside him. “So much of the world is barren now, but you could almost forget that in this place.”
“Haven’t the foggiest,” Polly said. “But if humans are going to find one thing to do, it’s entertain themselves.”
The lamps flickered out, and she watched for a moment in the darkness as the curtains peeled open, and silver like moonlight was cast against the screen, and a howl of music filled her ears as words appeared in quick flashes.
“What are all of these?” she said.
“These are just the names of the people who made the picture,” Polly whispered. “You’re supposed to stay quiet during a movie. It’s part of the experience.”
Yaretzi returned her attention to the screen, bats and windows and dark coats flashing by, and rasping voices spoke as though alive, seeking cures and blood and miracles.
“I would not trust that strange guest,” she whispered. “He looks like Typhon.”
“Good point,” Polly whispered.
It was not so different from theater, Yaretzi thought, just that the faces on the screen were gigantic and the performances preserved a hundred years and more. The actors still spoke of power and eternal life. At one point, a creature emerged—a man in costume, hair that covered his face with stiff teeth bared.
“Is this what they think I am?” Yaretzi said.
“I think at this point, this is all they know,” Polly whispered. “I wouldn’t take it personally. You should see what they’ve done to demons.”
Yaretzi watched the creature on the screen blur from a mock wolf to a clean-shaven man, and wished it were as easy. She breathed in, and a scent caught in her mind, fresh blood and the rot of a thousand graves.
“Something is wrong,” she said, and a tremor ran through her hands, the tips of her fingers sharpening. “Something is coming.”
“You’re sure?” Polly said. “You’re supposed to get the chills during these pictures, you know.”
“Is this seat taken?” a voice said, and Yaretzi looked up to find a stranger standing in the aisle beside her. His skin was dark, and the silver light glittered in his eyes, and he flashed a smile as sharp as hers.
Yaretzi bolted upright, standing between the rows of seats. There were hushed murmurs from those seated in the aisle above, but she had ears only for the stranger ahead of her.
“Easy,” Polly whispered, and Yaretzi stood in the shadow, shoulders squared.
“Just when you thought you’d seen everything,” the stranger said, arms at his sides, although she knew he could strike in an instant. Patches shaped like red bats ran up the length of his leather sleeves. “An industry boy and a dog running in the same circle. Couple of runaways?”
“If you don’t mind,” Polly interjected from behind her. “We’re trying to watch the movie.”
“Our business is none of yours,” Yaretzi breathed. The blood of a hundred wolves poured in her thoughts, pooled in the black cavity of her heart.
“I’m the Count. This is my kingdom,” said the stranger, and showed his fangs politely. There were red pins of light in his dark eyes. “And that makes it my business.”
Yaretzi could barely focus on his words; the deathly sweet scent was overpowering, and she looked across the theater. There were others, standing in their seats as well—more black jackets, more red patches. She clenched her fists, kept the lengthy claws from spreading up her arms.
“It’s over,” Yaretzi said. “It’s been over for a long time. We don’t have to do this anymore.”
“You wish it was over,” said the Count. “I’ve feasted on more of you than I can even remember. Starwolf blood, it’s like… honey. Dissolves on the tongue. And you’re an awfully fine vintage.”
The Count smirked, and dropped a motorcycle helmet onto a chair; black nails like knives spread from his open hands. The world grew dark and strange, the sound of the silver picture echoing as though over a great distance, and Yaretzi readied herself to lunge, waiting for the Count to move, see who was still faster after the passage of the centuries. His smile was cordial, but his eyes spelled destruction, and she responded in kind.
She had been here before, she thought. She had stared into the eyes of the men on fire, and lost her family. She had stared into the eyes of the blood-drinkers, and she had lost her pack. And when she had nothing left to lose, she had stared, and feasted on hearts of burning embers, and dreamt to forget.
She glanced back to Polly, and found him poised in his seat, cane in his hands, ready to leap into bloodshed and destruction by her side. On the screen a man with a wolf’s face tore apart his enemies, and from somewhere outside the theater, there was the cry of a seagull.
“Not today,” Yaretzi said, and lowered her hands. “If one of us must die, so be it, but I will not fight you today. We will leave your domain. Your kind collect secrets, do they not? We are in search of one.”
She felt a note of surprise from Polly. The Count frowned, and stared at her for a moment before the claws retreated into his fingers, and he crossed his arms.
“You know, it wouldn’t really be fun to just straight-up kill you,” said the Count. “You know more than anyone the hunt’s part of the fun. Another day then. My kingdom is wherever I go. I’ll see you again. What kind of secret are you in the market for?”
Yaretzi breathed deeply, and smiled.
“We are looking for a carnival.”
Outro - Stations
Stations. It is a false hope, in this universe, to ask for safety. Rarely will there be a day where every need is met, every thirst supplied, every task fulfilled. You strive and toil to move forward, but there will always be a little more road ahead of you. If you are to have peace in your brief lifetime, it will not be found in any great expanse, no field of tranquility where woes can trouble you no more.
Peace is in quiet moments between days of travel, and if you look for them along your journey, you may capture them more often. You cannot rush forward in a martyr’s blaze, burning your flesh for salvation, for it will not come, and you will only be rendered more swiftly to ash and dust.
Enjoy what steps you have to take. They will not always lead through pleasant places, but your journey will never be solely comprised of misery. I think it is still worth the length of existence for three or four happy days in the middle. Certainly, you and I have nothing better to do with our time except to live.
Until you arrive at that next good moment, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting peacefully for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Take Two', 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!