HFTH - Episode 68 - Sands



Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Dogsmell, a moth, at least one salamander), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs (moths), Body horror, Drug Use (sleeping medication)



Intro - Patchwork Life

You awakened to find your withered mother stooped over you, and for a brief moment you were a triumph, a perfect creation. Then you burst, like a firework coming undone, and you have been forever unfurled. You drift now, an eyeless specter, ribbons of skin and lesser fabrics peeling from your body like lightning across a dim sky.


And yet, you think, it could be worse. Your feet do not touch the ground, but you can move so far and fast. Your hands hold no great strength, but you clutch secrets lost to time and the stars themselves. You always wanted to travel, and now you visit the northmost woods, where space bleeds into the forest forever, and distant star-struck cities, and the sand barrens of your youth, and a world as transformed as you.


Your home, now, is a hotel where no one is quite like you, but no one is quite the same. They invite you to play games of secrets and death, and you smile with your exposed teeth, and the song on the jukebox goes ‘Hello From The Hallowoods’.



Theme.


Right now, I’m standing on a beach. The sand is white, but the sun does not glare on it too harshly, and the ocean is a turquoise fit for a magazine cover. Beaches here are never too crowded, and so one girl walks along the shore alone, toeing the border between the land and the deep. The theme of tonight’s episode is Sands.



Story 1 - A Little Business

Riot Maidstone walked in the sand, and thought of her mother. That brave face in the pale room, who held her as if she were her own. She hadn’t been allowed to see Valerie since the announcement, and the feeling sat like an oyster in Riot’s stomach. They probably thought it had been Valerie, and not Riot, who’d conspired to throw the message off kilter.


Why does all of this have to be so difficult, she huffed, and kicked in the water, splashing foam. People pulled at her from all directions. Her mother—more or less—wanted to see her happy and safe, and that was growing increasingly unlikely, and felt like a misgiven gift the longer it went on.


Melanie, for all her smiles and friendly touches, was like a circus trainer, and somewhere above her was a man in a pinstripe suit. Keep trying to tame me, Riot thought, and you’ll find out I’m a lion.


Ralph had sent her a few messages about nothing in particular via a contact terminal. She’d opened up the console several times, but hadn’t found the energy to reply. He seemed to want her time more than anything else, as if each moment in her presence was some kind of personal atonement.


And then there was Lady Ethel Mallory.


Ludicrously tall Lady Ethel Mallory. Kept gigantic flies on leashes Lady Ethel Mallory. Dangling the truth in front of her Lady Ethel Mallory.


Riot roused herself out of slumber enough to check her console; the beach shuddered and distorted for a moment. Ralph had sent her another message. ‘Hope you are good’, and a little smiling face. There was a notification from Melanie informing her about a morning press appearance, likely to make amends for the announcement. And, in a world which she barely knew, it was fifteen past two in the morning. Crap. She was late.


She allowed the visor to reinstate deep sleep, and returned to the peaceful shore. Time to see if this really works, she thought, and focused—examined her actions, tried to see herself in the third person. I’m walking on a beach, she thought, stomping slowly along in the water. Good. And now, I’m walking and I’m dreaming.


She found herself on a rocky shelf, unveiled by the low tide. Pools of water collected in its recesses, home to starfish and crab and eel. In the distance, a girl who looked like her walked on the beach. Thanks, dad, she thought. That’s going to be useful. If there were any others here—little black insects in the sand, watching her with glistening eyes—they would not find her here.


“You know that when employees are late to my meetings, they cease to be employees,” a voice said, and she looked over to find Lady Ethel folding away a tanning mirror. She sat in a beach chair propped in the stone, and did not seem much affected by the sun—a woman in her perpetual prime, heart-shaped glasses and lipstick as red as an award show carpet.


“Is this what you used to look like?” Riot said, and crossed her arms, feeling awkward. It was hard to know where to stand when talking to someone in a beach chair, and she felt her beach body was roughly the color and shape of a peeled potato.


“This is how I always look,” the Lady frowned. “In here. What a way to start a conversation.”


“Sorry,” Riot said, and dreamt a chair for herself with an umbrella on the side. She sat down, and felt it lean a little too far back to be perfectly comfortable.


“No one’s following you,” the Lady said, glancing across the tidal shelf and the beach beyond. “How’d you manage that?”


“I’m just good at dreaming, I guess.”


“That was quite the stir you made on the network,” Lady Ethel said, appearance shifting to include a wide sunhat and an airy dress. Her smile, however, remained static.


“Yeah,” Riot said, glancing away. “I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought it would help.”


“Oh, it was wonderful,” the Lady said. “Melanie’s been an absolute grouch during her report segments.”


“Oh,” Riot said, and wondered for a moment if she’d stumbled into the middle of something petty. “I want to know what the plan is. So I can help more.”


“Well, we’re not just here to workshop our summer complexions,” Lady Ethel said. “You and I each have something against this company. For me, they’ve kept the ability to make any real decisions away for years—and now that I’ve played my part, they’re ready to toss me out like an old cell phone. And for you? You’re another pawn in their game, just like me. Designed to keep a user base in check. I don’t think it’s too late for me. And it’s certainly not too late for you, bright young thing.”


“Thanks,” Riot said, and suddenly felt underdressed. She shifted her appearance as she sat, took on a square-shouldered suit her mother had worn in a courtroom photo. “So. What are we going to do?”


“I’ve been trying to find my way out of this little box for a while,” Ethel said. “I thought the whole Stonemaids issue would be the perfect opportunity. Give Oswald reason to trust me, put more control in my hands. Resolve a crisis. Unfortunately I was backstabbed, and you were born.”


“You wanted the Stonemaid stuff to happen?” Riot said.


“Now that’s a nice example of something you should never say or repeat,” Lady Ethel sniffed. “Not forever. Just long enough for me to get some executive power. You’d be surprised how little I can effect when it comes to this company as a whole.”


“Do you think they’re still around?” Riot said. “The Stonemaids, I mean.”


“Well, your announcement was supposed to be the nail in that particular coffin,” Ethel said. “But you pried the whole thing open. I expect they’re up in arms. But that’s only part of the situation now.”


“Because of the… other Riot?” Riot said. A crab peaked from the pool, tiny and translucent as a ghost.


“Did you find a grindstone somewhere, sharpen those wits of yours?” Ethel said. “Yes, exactly. You two couldn’t be further apart, you know. She’s a hateful little thing, fast as a rat. And, well, it wouldn’t take much to simply have security obliterate her when she shows up. But I think others deserve to know about what’s happening here. People deserve the truth. And when our story reaches the public, they’ll demand change. Reform. People to make decisions who they can trust. And we can make this company a real force for good.”


“That’s a lot,” Riot said. “What do you need me to do?”


“For now? Be patient,” Ethel said. “Just for another day or two. And keep an ear in the Prime Dream, because I’ll let you know what to do when it’s time.”


“Lady Ethel?” Riot said, nodding. “Whatever’s going to happen… can you please make sure Ralph and mom are alright?”


The Lady stared at her for a moment, and tilted her head.


“You have more in common with Anderson Faust as parents than those two, you know,” she said.


“I don’t… I know. But they still matter. They care about me, even if it’s wrong,” Riot said.


The Lady looked down at the water rippling by her feet.


“I understand,” she said. “I really do. I’ll make sure she stays safe from Melanie.”


“Thank you,” Riot said, and stood up, and straightened her suit jacket. “So I guess I’ll see you around.”


“Sooner than you think,” the Lady said, and smiled.


Riot opened her eyes, and stood on the beach, water washing over her feet. It was going to be a long day.



Interlude 1 - Former Oceans

America’s desert regions may not have been so heavily struck by the onset of the Black Rains, but this does not mean they are not strange or surreal. Expanses of vast sand and rock stretch beneath the sun’s powerful gaze, encompass the horizon, become a blur in the air that shudders and bends the light.


They have not forgotten that they were once weird oceans in aeons past, glinting in the sunlight for much of the history of your world. Only in the last couple of hundred million years have they been turned upwards to the light, and yet they still dream of the old shapes that once swam in their depths. This was the age of mud, the age of great water, the age when Lolgmololg might have done anything useful.


No more. No more.


Spirits still wander over these dunes, ghosts of an ancient age, as lost in death as they were in life. Strange regrets nest in canyons and gulches, and secrets have been buried where no one may find them. If you’re sleeping beside a rock that looks like a raven’s skull, especially do not dig there. You know who you are, dreamer. I know you’re thinking about it.


It is an ideal environment for things that used to be snakes and tarantulas, and things that used to be people.


We go now to one who is familiar with these former oceans.



Story 2 - Safe from the Darkness

Moth had rather hoped that moth had seen the last of Vegas, and yet you just couldn’t be rid of it. The city was more brown than you’d expect from a distance, nestled between unfolding hills of red rock like a desert spider.


In the stony horizon, the silver sides of Box Venus reflected the desert and the sky, almost invisible. Moth felt a pang of guilt in moth’s chest—he was there, within sight, although he would never see Moth again. Unless something goes terribly wrong, Moth thought. The RV’s resident cat watched moth unblinkingly from across the table, tail swishing. Stop judging me, Moth thought.


“You seem tense,” Olivier said. She had become moth’s usual seating buddy in the RV; the girl named Riot busied herself with constant driving, and stopped only for minutes of rest or to collect fuel at Ray’s suggestion. Diggory, the one with stitches across their skin and pale white eyes, seemed to stare into space a lot—if they were staring at anything at all.


“I’m alright,” Moth said, rubbing at the tattoos on moth’s arms—owlet and sphinx and tiger moths clustered together, wings fluttering. Beautiful, ethereal creatures, bearers of little whispered secrets, fairies in search of light. That’s all I want, Moth thought. Someplace safe from the darkness.


“If you weren’t, it would be okay to say,” Olivier said, sitting down heavily. “This was your home, wasn’t it? What was it like growing up here?”


“Not as fun as you’d expect from the movies,” Moth said, and pushed back moth’s coat—even with the RV’s air conditioning wheezing at full strength, it was growing hot inside.


“I don’t know it from any movies,” Olivier said, and gathered her hair into a ponytail.


“Oh. Well. They like to show all the casinos and fountains and buffets and air balloons and fake eiffel towers and pirate ships. Tourist stuff. Maybe it used to be like that. But for me it was little packed-together neighborhoods that stared straight out into the desert, and barely having water, and always being a little bit on guard.”


“Because of the pirates?” Olivier prodded, lying back on the bench cushions. She twirled a finger, and a breeze flew through the RV, a moment’s fresh air.


“Because you never know who’ll show up in Vegas,” Moth said. The cat had still not looked away, but took a step back when Moth offered a hand. “You have to watch your back.”


“Is there anyone you wanted to visit while…”


“No,” Moth cut in. “I’ve said all my goodbyes.”


“Right,” Olivier said, and poked her head up to peer out the window. “I don’t like being this close to a Dreaming Box.”


Moth jolted awake suddenly, moth’s vision only black and white spots for a moment. Moth pinched moth’s arm, tried to pierce the fog with a little pain.


“You haven’t been sleeping,” Olivier observed quietly. Her eyes were dark at rest, but seemed to flicker inside with an azure storm.


“Not if I can help it,” Moth said.


“Still having those bad dreams?”


“They’re not just bad,” Moth said. “They’re my memories, Olivier. But everything is twisted up. Everything points to the Botulus Corporation. I don’t want to see it.”


“I’m sorry,” Olivier said. She offered a hand to the cat, and it stopped staring at Moth, padded over to clamber into Olivier’s lap. Traitor, Moth thought. “But you’re going to need sleep too, sooner or later. I wonder if sleeping meds would help?”


Moth glanced at the window—the city of palms and feathers was growing closer.


“That might help,” Moth said. “I think I know where to find some, actually.”


“Here in town?” Olivier said. “Hey Riot?”


“We had a fresh air break half an hour ago,” Riot called from the front. “Open a window.”


“It’s not that,” Olivier said. “Can we stop here in the city? Moth knows somewhere we can go for sleep medication. It might help.”


“Oh. Yeah. Okay,” Riot said, glancing at Moth in the rearview mirror. “Should we stop and tell Ray?”


“He’ll follow in a minute,” Moth said, climbing to lean between the front seats. “Stay on this road for now.”


Moth gave directions as they entered the city; turns and street numbers long provided to Uncle Gale for his visits. Dilapidated buildings flew past on either side; a dust-caked waffle palace, a quick-cash office with shattered windows, a Resting Place Hotel half collapsed. Home sweet home.


“Turn off here,” Moth said, and Riot did, bringing the RV off the highway and into the city’s depths. If they were lucky, moth thought, by the time the flies or buzzards notice us, we’ll already be gone. Moth navigated them around obstructions and away from trap streets, places where half-hearted barricades had been dismantled by pedestrians. If not for the dust and faded signs, it would be hard to tell any time had passed.


“How safe is this place?” Riot said, steering around a pile of shattered traffic drums.


“Just don’t leave the RV unattended,” Moth said. “Now turn right. We’ll continue up here a little while.”


It was a bad place for a casino; too far away from the Strip for foot traffic, too surrounded by buildings of beige and rust to gain the attention of hopeful spenders.


“This is the place,” Moth pointed, and Riot brought the RV to a stop. Moth popped open the door and stepped out, shaking moth’s head—oh, for a little coffee or an infamous contraband energy drink, a big no in the Scarberry house. Ray had not yet come rolling up behind the RV, and Moth felt a twinge of concern. He seemed to find his way where he wanted, though—would likely be around in a minute.


“Do you need help?” Olivier said, leaning in the RV’s doorway.


“I’ll be in and out,” Moth said, and made for a chain-link fence, and slid through a hole in the bottom edge on one side; it would draw less attention than unlocking the gate.


The lot was framed by withered palms and spilled dumpsters. No cars in sight, Moth thought. Might just be in luck. Moth dusted off moth’s cape and crept across the asphalt for the side of the building. ‘Lucky Day Casino’ was emblazoned on the front in cracked neon lights, although Moth knew it had not seen a lucky day in some time.


Moth hopped up to the side of an overturned dumpster, and from there jumped to catch a half-open window on the back corner, and tumbled through the narrow aperture into darkness.


Moth fell further than expected—someone had moved the table—and landed hard on the floor. There was a rustle of movement around Moth, then, and immediately moth felt something had gone very unlucky indeed.


“Welcome home,” a voice said above moth, and planted a boot directly in Moth’s face.




Marketing - Polishing

Lady Ethel: When you look at iconic Botulus Corporation products, such as the Dreaming Box, it’s easy to get caught up in thoughts of pride and patriotism and symbology. But did you know? Every aspect of our product line is for function as much as it is for style.


For instance, Dreaming Boxes are not just silver to depict armor, or to better reflect the local landscape, or even to evoke modern architecture. In addition to allowing the box side to serve as a lens for the short-range security grid, the reflective sides help the Dreaming Box regulate its temperature during the hot summer months, and serve as a home for our solar arrays. When the sun strikes your local Dreaming Box, it’s providing light and energy and joy for everyone inside.


Keeping them clean and polished is essential, of course, which is why our drone arrays fight a constant battle with the environment and weather…



Story 2, Continued - Safe from the Darkness

Someday I think she’ll just run out of things to say, and after that be quiet on the air, mouth hanging open, wasting oxygen.


And I’ll still hate it, because even in the silence, I’ll know she’s there.


We return now to Moth Scarberry.


Moth watched his cupped hands carefully, adrenaline pumping in Moth’s chest.


“What kind is it?” Moth said.


“Hemileuca burnsi, I think,” Fox replied, a frizz of ginger hair blanketing his head. “It’s a silk moth. You want to look?”


“Mhmm!” Moth said.


Fox smiled, a little magic in his crooked teeth and glinting eyes. “Alright.”


He unfolded his hands, and there, clinging to the palm of his fingerless glove, was an alien. Huge black eyes stared at Moth, antennae like feathers twitched, and brilliant red and black stripes ran through its white fur. Tiny arms clustered around its fuzzy face, and it had wings long and beautiful, as if woven of silk. It was one of the biggest moths that Moth had seen.


“What does this one say?” Fox said. Moth leaned in gently, enough to hear the whisper.


“It’s singing,” Moth said. “About a garden.”


Fox looked down at the creature in his hands, and it clambered across the tips of his fingers.


“No, wait,” Moth said. “The song is changing. It’s… it’s the Botco song from the radio? How…”


Moth looked up to find Fox staring at Moth, eyes blank as if stunned.


“And what a good song it is,” he said. “Are you getting tired yet, Moth? You can sleep all you want very soon. It’s so easy. All you have to do is reach out to your local dreaming box or Botulus Corporation Contact Terminal. There’s always one nearby. Or, just wait. The Cluster will be happy to collect you at the end of the ad cycle.”


The moth had curled up and died in Fox’s hands, writhed from the inside, and around Moth the others were approaching—Frances, and Dinah, and Bill, the same smile on each of their faces.


“Feeling tired, Moth?”


There was a jolt of light, and a sudden, terrible impact, and Moth woke up.


“I said, you sleepy?” a voice whispered, and Moth blinked away the dreams. It was Fox, alright, a little more wearied and withered than usual.


“Hello Fox,” Moth said, glancing up. Rough paracord burned Moth’s wrists, kept moth pinned to a chair, and beyond in the rows of gambling machines a large woman with locks tied back was sharpening a butcher knife. “Hello, Dinah.”


“You’ve got a lot of guts to come back home,” Dinah’s grim voice echoed. “After what you did.”


“I thought…” Moth started.


“You thought what?” Fox said, almost doing a little dance of agitation, and suddenly his leering face was too close, pointed teeth in Moth’s field of vision. “That we’d be dead or taken away? That you could come rob the place blind?”


He chuckled, a barking sound that Moth had rarely heard charged with such malice.


“Guess we’re tougher than you gave us credit for.”


“I didn’t mean to hurt any of you,” Moth said. On the far side of the gambling hall, Dinah stood up. The rows of slot machines were dark; their desolate bulbs and screens glinted in the sun from the skylight above.


“But you did,” Dinah said, tucking the cleaver into the sheath in her apron. A dozen handles glittered there, the treasured arsenal of a five-star chef.


“Why did you do it, Moth?” she asked, and crossed her arms.


“Isn’t it obvious?” Fox said, wheeling around. “The little mayfly’s back to loot the place.”


Dinah waited, nodded to Moth for a response.


“Bill was sick,” Moth said. “You know he was. The water made him bad and he wasn’t getting better.”


“Lots of people get sick,” Dinah said, beginning to step closer, utility boots on desiccated carpet.


“He’s my dad,” Moth said. “But he’d never go to a box on his own; you all wouldn’t have helped him. They have doctors in there. Real doctors.”


“Real doctors of death,” Fox cackled. “Hi, my name is Velma Burfield, and we’re gonna take care of ya Bill, just lay back and relax.”


“Do you really think he’s alive right now?” Dinah said, stepping into the light. One of her hands was wrapped in bandages and strapped to her side. Moth had seen her cold when dealing with rival bands, but had never been on the receiving end of her chill temper until now. “They probably found him worthless at the entrance exam and tossed his body in for compost. Was it worth destroying our home for that, do you think?”


“Dinah lost two fingers in a drone rotor,” Fox said. “They carried Bill away in one of those big metal bugs. You should have seen it, all those little legs grabbing on to him. And nobody’s seen Frances since that night. The flies come around here day and night now. We’ve been in a bad way. But you know what would make me feel a lot better?”


Fox flipped out a butterfly knife; it was never far from his fingers.


“I only wanted to help him,” Moth said. “That was all.”


“We could have helped, if you’d talked to us,” Dinah said, glancing at Fox. “But you called the flies and you ran. You had no right to do that to us. To Bill. That was his choice to make. Do you understand that?”


There was a rumble from outside, then, and a clashing on the front doors.


“But you’ve got new friends now,” Fox said, his eyes boring into moth. Moth knew it would only take a stray flick of his wrist to do immense harm.


There was a shriek of buckling metal, and light poured into the dark hall as several figures entered—a tall person with long, sharp fingers, and a short girl with eyes that shone blue, and one with a glinting sword held in her hands.


“Hey bozos!” Riot cried from the doorway. “Don’t do anything crazy now because trust me, we’ll get crazier!”


“Hold still,” Dinah commanded, and pointed a knife at the door. She looked down at Moth.


“Why did you come back here, Moth?”


“Just came for sleeping meds,” Moth said. “I’ve been tagged. By a Cluster.”


Fox and Dinah both glanced at each other for a moment, wide-eyed, and the three in the door also watched. There was a roar of a familiar engine from outside; Ray had found his way back.


“I’ll get them for you,” Dinah said. “And then you’ll get out of here. Fast.”


Fox laughed as Dinah hurried between the rows of dusty machines.


“A Cluster,” he said. “Oh that is rich. That’s so good. Oh you deserve everything that’s coming to you.”


He swept in with the knife quickly, and moth watched as Diggory advanced half the hall in a moment. Fox only cut moth’s binds, though, and Moth stood up shakily to find Diggory tucking an arm over moth.


“We will be leaving now,” Diggory said, and Fox looked up in terror, trembling as he tucked his knife away and held his palms up. A grin spread across his face after a moment.


“Have fun out there,” Fox said. “As long as it lasts.”


Dinah returned a moment later, and tossed a plastic bag from the stairwell down to the entry hall; little plastic canisters and cardboard boxes tucked inside.


“There,” Dinah called. “Get lost.”


“Moth, you okay?” Riot called. Diggory helped moth walk through the glistening aisle and to the door. Ray’s headlights flashed in relief outside.


“I’m alright,” Moth said. “Let’s go.”


“Hope it was worth it!” Fox cackled, and his laughter surrounded Moth as moth stepped out into the sunlight. “Say hi to Bill for me!”



Interlude 2 - And Yet, What A View

Beaches and deserts are different things in space, for what dwells there is larger than you by orders of magnitude, and consequently so is the sand. You look out on the great basin and see empty dunes of broken rock; we look out on universal expanses and see millions of dead planets, dry and devoid of life, washed by the waves of galactic gravity.


And yet, what a view.


The most interesting scenery, I think, is the kind no one is there to see. Impossible canyons, beaches of glass and mercury, flying islands and desolation unmarred by a single living creature’s touch. Even in the Grand Archives of Zelkryzelk you will not find all these glories documented, for omniscient beings rarely care about such seemingly meaningless, but infinitely beautiful, parts of our nature.


We go now to one who wants to know everything.



Story 3 - Everything Opens

“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Clara whispered. She swore the hut was more spacious on the inside. She glanced out the door—no sign yet of Winona. Thankfully, Arnold and Harrow could keep her occupied for hours.


“No, I think we really should,” Friday said, scurrying from one fixture in Winona’s room to the next. It smelled like incense and orange peels and dried salamanders. A furry black cat, a void with yellow eyes, stared from the bed and its gaze followed Dogsmell as the ghastly hound drifted.


“Be quiet. Good kitty,” Clara whispered encouragingly.


Friday slid a drawer in a desk open, and Clara sighed. “What are you looking for exactly? Some kind of evil plan with pictures? A recipe book for human children? Letters from her twin sisters asking to share the eyeball?”


“I’m not usually wrong about these things,” Friday said, and from beneath the desk pulled a book wrapped in dark leather. “This seems right.”


Clara took a quick glance out the door to make sure no one was coming, and clicked it shut. She hurried over to Friday. Behind her, the cat meowed and swatted at Dogsmell, who dodged sheepishly out of the way and came to hover by Clara’s feet.


The book seemed to be bound and wrapped in a single smooth piece of leather, with no flaps or zippers or buttons.


“Does it open?” Clara whispered.


“Everything opens,” Friday smiled, and stabbed the cover with her knife of black obsidian.


A howling shriek of wind whistled through the room, quickly dampened and drawn into the blade. A single hairline crack appeared near the handle.


Behind them, the cat yowled, and went padding to scratch at the door.


The book, however, revealed a jagged opening in the cover, and Friday flipped the pages open.


“Is it a spellbook?” Clara said.


“Don’t be silly,” Friday said. “It’s a journal.”


“How can I protect my journals like that?” Clara said. “That’s great.”


“They’ll teach you in third year,” Friday muttered, and paused on a page. “Finding this night-gaunt. Taming… she got a hut built. Boring. What I need is… here.”


She pointed down on the page, and Clara polished her glasses to better try to interpret the jagged black letters.


“She wants to get inside the Library,” Clara said at last. “Access to the archives. What are those?”


“It’s the place below the library where they keep the really important stuff,” Friday said. “It’s guarded by some very grumpy staff members.”


“Wouldn’t she already be able to get that stuff though?” Clara said.


“No,” Friday said triumphantly, and flopped the book over to a different page, seemingly arriving at the one she wanted. “Because she’s not from Downing Hill. She never was. Look. Here she’s breaking a library card… from Mr. Stewart, no less. He was a summer instructor. I suppose she thought she’d fill his shoes.”


“I hate when you’re right,” Clara blinked.


“You should get used to it,” Friday said.


“What rude little girls,” a voice as old as sand said, and Clara looked back to find Winona sitting on the bed, wrapped in purple fabrics, eyes glittering in the dark. She smiled wryly, and pet her cat, before allowing it to hop away from her lap. “But I’m proud in a way. Curiosity is good for everyone except cats.”


“Don’t try anything,” Friday said, and immediately produced the void-knife. Clara could see a glimmer of hairy legs from the spider up her sleeve.


Winona chuckled pleasantly, and put her hands together. “What is this, a stickup? All the good silverware is in the drawer. Please don’t hurt an old lady.”


“We don’t want silverware,” said Clara, and felt dumb for saying it. “We want answers.”


“Oh dear,” Winona said, and raised a finger. “You’ve chosen the most valuable thing of all. Everyone wants answers, Clara. So few actually get them, and they’re never what we hope.”


“The Director will use your skin for parchment when she finds out you’ve been lying,” Friday said, stepping forward.


“Friday, don’t be stupid,” Clara said. “Winona, what is this all about? Why did you take us from Downing Hill?”


She suddenly felt unsafe; Winona only smiled at Friday as the girl approached, but she didn’t strike Clara as the type of woman who is ever defenseless. All the exercises, all the small talk, the cryptic monologues—what had it all been for?


“That’s quite enough of that,” Winona said as Friday advanced, and with a flick of her wrinkled wrist produced a golden khopesh, a curved sword that glinted in the candlelight.


Suddenly Friday’s knife spun with a quick clatter, and the cat went screaming for Friday’s leg, and Edgar the spider leapt for Winona’s face with glistening mandibles, and Dogsmell barked with a sound that shook the air and the room like a lightning strike.


And then Clara smelled pine needles. She lifted her head up from the soil, shaking moss free of her hair. Around her, Friday sat up, and behind them Arnold and Harrow and Victoria. She looked around. The underbelly of the forest was perfectly still, the wind whistled in the pines around them, and not so much as the footprints of the nightgaunt disturbed the soil.


“What,” Victoria said, eyes flashing as she glanced between them, “did you do?”



Outro - Sands

Sands. They are coarse, irritating little particles, to you almost dust, piled in careless heaps across your planet. Nevertheless, it is made of rock and bone and shell, small fragments of life ground into nothingness by the ceaseless oceans of time. It would surprise you how many asteroids and planets are the same, the remains of vast bodies and carapaces lost to time and gravity. Everything breaks. Everything gets, gradually and eternally, smaller, released from its shining and manifold forms into white piles of memory.


If only we could get them back. Reassemble all that was broken, witness once more the reign of what came in ages past, the glory that graced this cosmos, shells and bones and hearts and mountains.


It is all gone, dreamer. It is all gone.


If we are terribly unlucky, we are left to walk the beach, and with our still-formed feet tread away all that was, wondering where it went, until it is washed away. On the tides of eternity, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting particularly for your return to the Hallowoods.



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