Content warnings for this episode include: Abuse, Animal death (Bert as usual), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Mental illness, Sexism and misogyny, Needles, Homophobia, Birds, Gun Mention, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror
Intro - She Of The Straw Hair
You have made her, and she is beautiful. She has hair of straw and buttons for eyes, and you imagine she has a better life than yours. Tragedies have beset your life like the rain that falls on your dreary hamlet. Your father whips your brother for his jests; your mother holds your hand close to the fire to burn away the witchcraft. One day she pulls apart your doll, throws her straw hair piece by piece into the fire, and the dark spirits fall upon your eyes like buzzards.
Your father is the first to go. You lure him into the grain silo as it fills, watch his hands claw at the bars until he ceases to move.
For your mother, you wait until she has drunk herself again to sleep, and strike a match and light what remains of your cloth doll ablaze. Doll and mother and house are lost to the fire, a funeral pyre for she of the straw hair, and you and your brother hold hands as you watch the flames climb into the night. The years carry you far away, to a place where you can sew, to a world that wishes you Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I am hovering in the darkness of a cabinet, alongside a box of macaroni pasta, one can of beans, and three underripe tomatoes. The cupboard is barer than usual, for the farms have been ruined, and trips to the market have become dangerous. The guardian of this pantry removes the beans, and pontificates on vengeance. The theme of tonight’s episode is Retributions.
Story 1 - Howdy, Neighbor
Virgil Kane tossed the pan in the communal sink, and brought the dishes over to his son, sitting at a table in the Scoutpost’s kitchen.
“Bon appetit,” he said. The dinner service was long complete, and the late watch milled about in the summer night. There were no celebrations, no laughter, no candlelit conversations. A snore like a riding lawnmower echoed from the ruined Lurch Lake gate, where Big Mikey kept a restful watch. Then again, it was hard to keep spirits up when a plague of warty toads could boil up out of the forest at any moment.
“What does that mean?” said Cole, prodding a fork into his beans.
“Eh. It’s a famous French chef,” Virgil said. “You say it to mean, enjoy this little baked bean masterpiece.”
“That’s pretty specific,” Cole mumbled.
“Hey,” Virgil said, and tapped his spoon on the edge of his tin. “Something I never heard often enough from my pa, so I wanted to say it to you. I’m proud of you. That big toad fellow practically had you in his claws, but you didn’t so much as cry. That’s good. Mighta saved your life.”
“He was going to eat me,” reflected Cole, over another mouthful of beans.
“He wanted to, most likely,” Virgil said. “I woulda stopped him from that. You know that, right?”
“But you didn’t,” Cole said quietly, and put his spoon down. “Jacob from Free Fort was the one who shot him.”
“Fort Freedom,” Virgil said. “That’s true. He was faster to the draw. And I’m grateful to him. But I would never let you get hurt.”
Cole said nothing, and stared at his beans.
“Eat up,” Virgil sighed, and fashioned his hair into a ponytail, and leaned back in his chair. “Is Al still giving you grief in class?”
Cole said nothing, and prodded the brown mass on his plate.
“I have to imagine it’s a little easier, since you’re in half classes right now,” Virgil continued.
“He has a friend now. Russel McGowan,” Cole mumbled.
“Oh that’s good,” Virgil said. “So he’ll bother ya less.”
“No,” Cole said. “Now they’re both picking on me. They ruined my recital. They put wax on my violin strings and Russell was laughing the whole time.”
“Well first off, I’m sorry to hear it,” Virgil said. “But you’ve taken up great with the music, recital or not. I think it’s best that you two steer clear of each other. At some point one of you will have to let bygones be bygones.”
“It won’t be me,” Cole muttered.
“When the froglins came around, you were supposed to be scaring them off with that playing of yours, right?” Virgil said. “So how’d Al’s drum end up with you, hm?”
“I hate Al,” Cole said. “I was just trying to teach him a lesson.”
“This is my point,” said Virgil. “You and I, we’ve got to be bigger men. So we can protect these folks. Don’t bother Al and he won’t bother you.”
“I don’t know,” Cole said. “Maybe he’ll keep on coming. Maybe he just won’t quit.”
“Give it a try,” Virgil said. “I’ll take it up with Ms. Duckworth if it keeps bein’ a problem.”
He looked up, suddenly, at the sky. Wafts of cloud filled the blue expanse, painted over the Scoutpost walls.
“Cole, get back to our room right now,” he said.
“I’ll do it,” Cole said. “I’ll try and do better with Al, I promise.”
“It’s not that,” Virgil said, rising and pulling on his jacket. He put on his gambler hat, and snatched up his spear from beside the table. “We’ve got company.”
He darted across the Scoutpost grounds as Cole grabbed his dish and made for their room. Virgil glanced up to the lookout towers, trying to find which one was occupied this time of night.
“Hey,” he shouted. “Who’s up there? Get the bell ringing!”
Russell McGowan’s face peered down from the top nest, close to a hundred feet up.
“I don’t see anyone!” Russell called down.
“No, but if you open your ears you’ll hear ‘em,” Virgil called back, and strode for the front gates—thankfully in better shape than their Lurch Lake wall, which had still only begun its reconstruction. He could feel the shake in the ground beneath his boots, the hum in the air, the distant and unmistakable roar of engines echoing over the forest. There was a fleet of vehicles inbound, and he could only think of one group it could be.
Violet came running from the infirmary as the bells sounded, looking exhausted. He met up with her on the walkways as he climbed for the front gate ramparts.
“What’s going on, Virgil?” she said, hurrying beside him, fixing her hair and jacket. “What’s wrong?”
“Not sure if wrong’s the right word,” he said, and nodded towards the top of the gate. “But I think Fort Freedom’s finally made good on their word.”
He leaped up the last of the ramp to the top of the battlements and leaned against the rail, spear in his hand. The maple was a poor excuse for a polished metal handle and trigger. Behind him, the Scoutpost came crawling out from their dens—the dagger fingered Mendies, peering from doorways, and Jonah Duckworth with his yellow hat and improbably loud voice, and even Zelda who against all odds clutched a shotgun in her hands. On the opposite side of the Scoutpost, the bells roused Big Mikey from his slumber, a bloated giant with eyes that blinked like green fires in the night.
And then there they were, thundering down the forest path that connected the Scoutpost to the world beyond, antennas and flags taking down a few strings of the Scoutpost’s colored pennants as they approached. There were at least a dozen vehicles, blazing like cavalry, men strapped with munitions hanging out of trucks and piled on ATV’s, and behind all was a huge flatbed covered in a tarp. They came rolling to a stop outside the Scoutpost’s front gate, exhaust curling around them into the night. From the truck in front, a young man Virgil recognized opened his door and leaned on it, and waved with a grin.
“Howdy, neighbor,” he called. “Care to invite us in?”
“Oh no,” Violet said quietly, by Virgil’s side. “Virgil. We’ve got Big Mikey here… and why are there so many of them? Do you think they’re here to help? I don’t see Mrs. Wicker, but that might just be my eyes…”
“I don’t spot her either,” Virgil whispered back. “But that kid down there saved my son’s life. We asked for their help. Now it’s here. And we need all the firepower we can get if we want to get the Lurch Lake gate repaired. Hell, maybe they can help with the construction.”
Violet looked down again, worry and thought crossing her face in equal turn. Finally, she looked back to Virgil.
“Virgil, are you sure about this?” she said.
Virgil looked down to the waiting guests a last time, and nodded. Violet sighed, and waved to the combat scouts below.
“Open the gates,” she called. “Let’s get our guests inside.”
Interlude 1 - Old Afterclaps
If you intend to commit great evil, be wary of your footing. If you stand along the old rail lines of Wyoming, you may be haunted for nights afterwards by a beating heart, a thrum in the air like a train engine, shrill screams of far-off steam. And then, all too quickly, he will be upon you, bearing down at a hundred miles per hour, fire belching from his furnace chest, skull half formed of pouring flame.
Chains are his burden and his weapons, and with burning eyes he will pull you down into destruction. Long has he haunted these empty rails, a mission never completed—to those who once rode along these metal lines, he was the Ghost of Judgement, Old Afterclaps, but even they do not know the depths of his tempestuous hate, for he is one of hell’s engines, the collector of tithes, the auditor of deeds whose vehemence shakes the very earth beneath your feet.
From this infernal engine we can glean a chilling lesson: be kind to your neighbors in Wyoming rail country.
We go now to one who is also encased in metal.
Story 2 - The Time Of Your Life
Mort could remember several times in his life. There was the time he sat in the mud and watched the fishes. The time he had fought Yaretzi. The time he met Bert, and the time Polly died, and the time he fought the bad man.
But none of them had been as good as the time Polly made a carnival. Because currently, Mort sat on a carousel, in a ride shaped like a big blue bird with a long neck, and he felt like he was flying amidst a thousand glowing stars.
The ferris wheel shone bright, and he had a stuffed Bert in his claw hand, and the momentum of the ride made his skull stick against the glass of his helmet, and Mort laughed as it came to an end.
“Can I go again?” he called.
“You’ve gone three times already,” Polly replied, leaning on his cane by the ride’s exit. “You’re sure you’re not dizzy?”
“I don’t know what that is! I wanna go again!” Mort said.
“Alright, alright,” Polly said, and with a wave of his hand, the carousel’s music started to jingle brightly, and Mort went around again. Polly looked up to him, horns a dim glow above his floral hat. “I’m going to go find Yaretzi, alright? I’ll be back in a minute. Take another ride or two if you like!”
“I could do this all night,” Mort said. Polly turned and disappeared into an aisle of shining game machines, and Mort laid back and enjoyed the carousel. There was a cry, then, from somewhere closeby—the urgent squawk of Bert the seagull.
“Bert!” Mort called. “Come ride the ride!”
Bert did not come.
Mort sat for a moment, as his bird chair made a lazy circle around the center of the carousel.
Still Bert did not come sailing through the carnival lights. Another urgent squawk.
Mort hopped free of his bird, tumbling one end over the other and crashing through a cotton candy machine, which disappeared into little orange embers as he crushed it. He got to his feet, and went lumbering through the stalls, looking for the dead seabird. Finally, the crowing grew louder, and he spotted Bert out by the edge of the carnival, where a little velvet rope separated the lights from the half-submerged forest beyond.
“Silly bird,” Mort said, tromping over to kneel next to the gull. “There’s no one there.”
“Your duck’s got a heck of a nose,” a voice called from beyond. Mort looked up to find someone standing in the shadows next to the trees—short, a velvet suit glistening red in the darkness.
“Hello Barb,” Mort said. “Are you here for the carnival?”
“Just happened to be in the neighborhood,” Barb said, taking a step forward. His shoes slipped on the beach a little, made as it was of flotsam and mud. “Where’s Polly got off to?”
“He’s looking for Yaretzi,” Mort said. “I don’t know what to do next. Do you want to play some games with me? You can win prizes.”
“Well I do love a jackpot,” Barb said, and turned to whisper into the trees behind him, too quietly for Mort to hear.
“Did you bring a friend?” Mort said, and tilted his skull.
“No friends here,” Barb said, and spat black onto the beach, and smiled, and raised his hands. “Except you and me. We’re friends, right?”
“Yeah!” Mort said, and beamed.
“Well I love games. Have you played the secret game?”
“There’s a secret game?” Mort said, and picked up Bert, who gave a low squawk in protest. He put Bert on his shoulder, where the bird’s feet scratched against his armor.
“Yeah,” Barb said. “It’s right this way. I’ll show you while the others are busy.”
“Maybe I should let them know,” Mort said. “So they don’t worry?”
“It’ll be fine,” Barb said. “With a winner like you, we’ll be back before they know it with prizes in hand.”
“I do like prizes,” Mort said, looking at his stuffed Bert toy thoughtfully. “Okay!”
He walked through the fence; it broke into little orange lights and vanished as he stepped out into the darkness of the beach. Barab seemed to whisper to the trees again, and looked up to him and smiled, and began to lead him off through the forest.
“You came a long way,” Mort remarked as he followed Barb through the flooded woods.
“Not so long when you’ve got a flying car,” Barb said, rubbing at his eye bandages. “You remember Cherry, don’t you? She’s never let me down.”
“What is the secret game like?” Mort said after another minute.
“Oh I can’t tell you,” Barb said. “Or it wouldn’t be a secret, would it?”
“I guess not,” Mort said.
Minutes passed, and still Barb just led urgently through the trees, until they emerged onto a little beach away from the rest. The moon twinkled on the water, and the little bits of buildings far out in the sea were shrouded by mist. Mort could still see a light on the ocean from the carnival, gleaming rainbow colors and an echo of music.
“We’re almost there,” Barb said. “Just a little further. All you have to do is swim down there. That’s where the game is.”
Barb pointed out to the water.
“Where?” Mort said.
“Once you’re under, you’ll see a little light,” Barb said. “Swim towards it and you’ll find the secret game.”
“Will you come with me?” Mort said.
“I’ve already gone,” Barb said. “You can only go once.”
“Okay,” Mort said, looking from Barb to the black ocean. “Is it fun?”
“Trust me,” Barb said, and black blood trickled down his cheeks from his bandages. “It’ll be the time of your life.”
Mort nodded, and dropped his stuffed toy, and with a last look at Barb went sprinting out into the ocean.
The water was heavy around him, and black as the night sky. It was not rock and stone beneath him, he realized, but a beach of ruined treasures that fell into murky shadow, bits of buildings and streets poking from the heaps of debris.
Then, there it was—a little light, further down. Mort sank through the ocean like a stone, boots kicking off the drifting piles of garbage. Wonderful objects flurried around him as he chased the light. He drew near; the light came from a little cave of sorts. Or not a cave, really; a building, one with his name on it, encrusted by moss and barnacle—’Mort-uary’. Its doors were open, and something moved inside, a huge shape. It was a fish, as big as him, with lights dangling in front of its bonelike skull. Its eyes were little green fires, and they stared at him. He stared back.
And then it opened its jaw to reveal rows of tiny little needle teeth, and Mort looked around. There was no other light, and this was not a secret game.
Barb was a liar.
Why would Barb lie to him?
Mort’s head was flooded with hurt. Everyone lied to him, all the time. They thought he couldn’t handle the truth. They thought he was too dumb for it. He could handle it, whatever it was. And the truth was that he was here, with old roads crumbling beneath his boots, and a long way away from Polly and Yaretzi.
And then it got darker, and Mort struggled for a moment to think why. And then it occurred to him, and he moved quickly, climbing as fast as he could up the underwater banks, kicking up from the ruined city, rising for the open air, water pouring off him as he stepped onto the ruined beach.
Where the carnival had once shone over the trees, there was no light, no music. It had all disappeared, and there was a burst of flame from far away, and someone he loved was screaming.
Marketing - Stars Align
Lady Ethel: In the world of business it will often happen that someone tries to humiliate you, put you down, show you who’s boss. They’ll disrespect you publicly and try to pull what belongs to you right from your hands. They’ll interrupt you when you’re trying to make yourself heard.
When these things happen, you will want to strike out. To put them in their place. To be meaner and prettier and louder. But that is not the time. Because you represent your brand. If you want to portray graceful. Serene. Powerful. You must demonstrate it even under fire.
Wait. Long after the meeting, the broadcast, the business quarter has ended. Until the stars align just right, and you have identified exactly which threads you need to pull. Everything works out in favor of the patient and the smart.
And when your opportunity arrives, they will have done the work for you. They’ll be gift-wrapped. Savor every moment. Drink of their blood, richer than any wine and let them fade away before your eyes. Let them suffer tenfold for every atrocity they tried to commit against you. They won’t try to take what’s yours again, or interrupt you! And no one else after will ever dare…
Story 2, Continued - The Time Of Your Life
Good things come to those who wait. Unfortunately for you, Lady Ethel, an indescribable lord of nightmare can wait much longer than a mortal marketing professional. Eternal youth can only last so many decades, even in dream, and the clock is tick tick ticking. Let’s see if we can give that minute hand a push.
We return now to Mort.
Mort sprinted through the trees, and every time he emerged out of the puddles and pines into a clearing, it was empty, so he turned and tried a different direction.
“Polly?” he called. “Yaretzi?”
They did not respond, but he could hear now roars that sounded like Yaretzi, and roars that did not. Another burst of flame lit up the trees, behind him this time, and he spun and continued to run, and Bert circled overhead and crowed.
“Don’t worry!” Mort shouted. “I’m coming!”
He burst out of the forest, toppling the last of the waterlogged trees as he did, and emerged finally onto the beach where a carnival had recently stood.
The first thing that caught his eye was the fire; it glinted harshly in his vision, smoldering all across the beach of garbage. In the distance he could see two people—Polly, hat missing and jacket torn, and someone Mort did not immediately recognize, holding Polly by his lapels.
Polly whirled his cane, and for a second fire flickered along its length, and then sparked and went dim.
And then the stranger threw Polly, with an arm that was much bigger than the other, not unlike Mort’s own. Polly rolled across the beach, and struggled to rise, and it was then that Mort noticed Polly’s body was rent with orange tears, light that shone through the holes in his nice clothes. The stranger turned to Mort, and his eyes shone different colors—orange and green, and his body was covered in huge black cuts, and he spoke with a voice Mort recognized.
“Howdy there tin can. You’re late to the party.”
Mort began to run towards Rick Rounds, without thinking, and tripped over a huge black shape, and went sprawling across the beach. He looked up to find it was a pile of fur, and hints of glistening gold and red, and the wolf began to rise.
“Yaretzi?” Mort said.
“Stay back, Mort,” she growled, huge legs shaking as she stood. “You do not have to fight if you do not wish to. We will handle this.”
The mountain of black fur flew past him then, and Yaretzi bounded as fast as the wind across the beach, huge claws outstretched and teeth shining like death.
Rick spun, and the hand Mort had once cut off was a great mass of roots, culminating in a huge thorny fist, and it struck Yaretzi like a sledgehammer, and she careened across the beach past him, sending debris and fragments of the beach flying. When they settled, she still lay on the ground, shaking—her fur seemed to peel in and out across her body in a state of flux that Mort had never seen.
“Let her go!” Mort shouted, and began to run towards Rick Rounds. Rick looked up, and snatched up Polly’s cane in his human hand; orange light seemed to pour from his palm into the shaft of the weapon, and lit his face like a deep-sea lantern lights a fish.
“Don’t do it, Mort!” Polly called, lifting himself up a little from the beach.
“Yeah, Mort, leave it be,” Rick laughed, and held his arms outstretched, cane in one hand, thorns in the other. Mort slowed; he wanted to help Yaretzi, help Polly, tear Rick into small pieces for hurting them and ruining their carnival.
“Don’t talk to me,” Mort said, and pointed with his claw. “You’re not my friend.”
“No, but the dandy sure is,” Rick said, and grabbed Polly’s throat with his hand of thorns, and held the burning cane close. “Take one more step my way and pretty boy here won’t be so pretty.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Polly grunted.
Rick licked his lips, and flipped the cane in his hand, and dug into Polly’s side with the hooked bone handle. Another orange tear, dripping with black ichor this time, and Polly screamed.
Rick raised the head of the cane to Polly’s neck.
“Take us away from here, Devil-man,” he said. “I’ve watched you do it. I know you can.”
“I’m out of fire,” Polly gasped. “I burnt it all on the carnival.”
“Go figure,” Rick said, and grinned, and tossed the cane away; its flames sputtered as it bounced across the field of refuse. He pressed his hand to Polly’s neck, then, and flame danced on his fingertips, burned bright against Polly’s skin. “Use a little of mine.”
Polly nodded limply, and raised his hands to the ones around his neck, and gave Mort a weak smile. And then, in a torrent of starlight and flame, Polly and Rick were both gone, and Mort was left to stand on a beach of desolate dreams.
Mort hurried over to where Yaretzi lay twitching, and fell to his knees beside her. She shifted her great toothy head against the beach to look at him.
“Did he hurt you, Mort?” she said.
“My head feels heavy,” Mort said. “Like I’m going to break. Like when Polly died.”
“I do not know if you can cry, Mort,” Yaretzi said, “but it is alright if you do. And when you are done, give chase. I can smell them. They are that way.”
She swished her tail to point into the forest behind them.
“What about you?” Mort said. “If you turn little I can carry you.”
“If I turn little I will die,” she said. “I just need to sleep. Sleep and I will be fine.”
“Sleep for how long?” Mort said.
“I do not know,” Yaretzi breathed. “Last time it was a long time. You can beat him. He has become like us—something you were made to kill. He will kill Apollyon if we do not stop him.”
“Okay,” Mort said, looking into the trees where she had pointed. “I’ll do my best. And I’ll come back. And we’ll be a family again.”
“I believe you,” Yaretzi smiled, black gums over yellow teeth. “Will you make me a place to rest?”
Mort lifted his great claw, and crushed the beach beneath it, flattening it again and again, the blows he wanted to hit Rick Rounds with, until there was a hole big enough for the great wolf. She dragged herself slowly—her great bones seemed broken, limbs bending the wrong way, and her wolfen mouth foamed with blood. She twisted around three times in the pit, and laid still.
“Cover me to keep out the rain,” she growled, and Mort found the shell of the old carousel, and dragged it over to her resting place.
“We love you, Mort,” she said, as he drew it close. “You are brave. And you can do whatever you want.”
Her golden eyes closed, and Yaretzi fell asleep.
Mort watched for a moment, and felt so heavy he could barely stand, and the water inside his glass dome burned with a thousand little green fires, splitting away from his eyes like wayward bubbles. Finally, Yaretzi breathed a long ragged breath, and continued to breathe.
“Yaretzi?” he said. “Are you asleep?”
Yaretzi did not speak.
Mort nodded to himself. Bert came circling down to light on his shoulder.
“It’s going to be alright, Bert,” he said, and turned for the trees. “We’re going to do it, and it will all be okay, and we’ll go to another carnival. Don’t you worry about it. Now. Let’s go save Polly.”
Interlude 2 - This Broadcast Will Continue
Dreamer, I am everywhere at once. Countless eyes across this universe. All-seeing. Ever-watching. I have lived aeons and visited in cities and temples lost forever to the starry expanse. And if I am able, I will reveal all that unfolds in the Hallowoods and the world beyond it.
However, we have been interrupted once before. Even now Lady Ethel Mallory schemes for methods to silence my voice and that any of anyone else who might hamper the effectiveness of her programming. If you have any concern for me, dreamer, do not. It is concern wasted.
This broadcast will continue until its inevitable, terrible, and, I hope, somewhat beautiful end. When at last your sun goes dark like a closing eye, and I run out of story to tell.
We go now to one afraid to start their story.
Story 3 - Where All The Stars Have Gone
Harrow sat quietly by the fire, and tried to keep their feet out of the darkness. It was not easy to do; the flame flickered and jumped, and cast long shadows into the night.
“The fire might attract savage animals,” Friday whispered. She sat on the other side, pale face barely lit by the fire. A spider sat behind her boots and watched them—too many huge black legs glittering with hair like little needles, and eyes shining like the moons of Jupiter.
“The fire stays on,” mumbled Victoria, who held her disheveled head in her hands. “It took long enough to make.”
Harrow nodded, although they realized that it was probably more important for the others; they suspected Victoria and Arnold could not see in the dark as well as they could. Friday seemed to creep around in dark places regardless, and Clara could see ghosts apparently—did that mean she could also see at night? Harrow was too nervous to ask. They wondered if anyone could see all the eyes in the stars, or the ones in the knots of the tree bark. There was one in the campfire log that kept blinking at them. Harrow did not blink back.
“The fire is good for tonight,” Clara nodded, with her back against a fallen trunk and her bow in her lap. “After this we can see. Get our bearings. Make a plan.”
“It’s like a group project,” Arnold sighed; he lay on a rock by the fire, and his clothes were muddier than usual. “I hate group projects.”
“Think of it like, the group project is getting us all back to Downing Hill in one piece,” Clara said.
“Great,” Victoria said. “Do we get to pick our partners?”
“I want to do mine by myself,” Friday whispered, elbows on her knees.
“I kind of hoped Winona would be back by now,” Clara interrupted quickly. Harrow liked that, although they wondered if she knew it wasn’t defusing the situation. Just burying the coals. The campfire seemed to stretch and yawn like a lazy cat, full of teeth and needle tongues.
“Like it was a mistake, or something,” Clara continued; the fire danced in her glasses. “But I guess by now we can cross that out.”
“Did she send us somewhere?” Arnold piped up from where he lay.
“Obviously,” Victoria muttered.
“Or like, did she go somewhere else and leave us behind?” Arnold continued.
Victoria opened her mouth, and paused for a moment.
“I haven’t seen any tracks around here,” Clara said. “But then again, I haven’t really looked.”
“Why does it matter?” Friday said; Edgar creeped up her leg, legs bristling. “Lost is lost.”
“Well, if we’re lost twenty miles from Downing Hill, we might figure this out.” Victoria said. “If we’re hundreds of miles away we’ll never make it back.”
“I mean, never say never,” Clara said. “We could find a way.”
“Oh? Do you have some ghost powers that’ll help us survive a hundred-mile hike?” Victoria said.
“This group won’t survive one mile,” Friday whispered. The spider sat on top of her head now, eyes glistening. Moths drifted by in the night, batting the darkness with their pale wings, and those that crossed by Friday’s head fell dead.
“Maybe we don’t have to go anywhere,” said Harrow, and the others turned to look at them. Look away, Harrow thought. You all have worms in your eyes, and now they’re burrowing into me. “Maybe we only need to survive long enough. When we don’t make it back in time, they’ll probably send someone to find us. The Omen could find us a lot faster than we can find Downing Hill.”
“Like Robinson Crusoe,” Arnold said. “Friday can be Friday.”
“And if they don’t send anyone?” Friday whispered. “Then we’ve just sat here and waited to die.”
“They would send someone,” Harrow said. “I know the tests are bad, but…”
“Spit it out,” Friday said.
“Director Blackletter is Harrow’s mom,” Arnold said, looking up. “She might let the rest of us starve to death in the forest. But probably not Harrow.”
“Wouldn’t she?” Friday said, looking up and staring at Harrow. Harrow shivered.
“No, she wouldn’t,” Victoria interjected, and pushed the hair from her face, secured it with a golden comb that shone like the sun. “You’d know that if you had a mom.”
“You’ll be fine out here, animal,” Friday said.
“Enough out of both of you,” Clara said, standing up. They were all silent for a moment.
“Maybe we’re being punished,” Harrow whispered. “Maybe I did something bad and she doesn’t want any of us.”
“Nobody did anything wrong,” Clara said, and looked to the group in turn. “Except maybe me and Friday for snooping in Winona’s things. But I think we’ve established there’s bigger stuff at play here. This is only about Winona, and we’re going to get out of here. Together. In one piece. But we can’t keep up this bickering, alright? I know you all have history with each other and I’m new and you’ve all been hurt by something or other. I get it. But all of that isn’t going to matter if we don’t make it back to the library. So I’m going to need all of you to pretend, just until we get back, that we are a team and we can do this. And when we get home then you can all go back to it like this never happened. Okay?”
There was another moment of silence.
“Okay,” Harrow said.
The rest nodded in agreement, Victoria last of all.
“Thank you,” Clara said, and sat down against the trunk. It was quiet for a long time, and Harrow laid down, and the fire got down to dimmer coals, and the forest was full of writhing shapes. The tree bark squirmed, and the roots wrestled with each other, and eyes, eyes everywhere. Eyes were better than the things without eyes, pale faceless things with antlers that lurked and watched and grinned with their neck-teeth and reached out with their unending hands, that stood in doorways made of fallen trunks and towering pines and pulled you into death worlds from whence no living thing returned unchanged.
“We could tell ghost stories,” Friday whispered in the darkness.
“Ghost stories scare me,” Harrow whispered.
“You don’t need to be scared, Harrow,” Clara said softly. “Scary things are people too, you know. They just might not remember as much as they used to.”
Harrow was not sure this was true. They fell asleep looking at the sky, watching the moon blink, and wondering where all the stars had gone.
Outro - Retributions
Retributions. Are you frightened, dreamer? Of what could happen? Of what they could do? Of the future lying in wait to snatch you up and gnash you in its teeth?
Be careful, when it is called for, dreamer, for not all you meet in life will wish you well. But of life itself, have no fear. Life is a simple creature and it is without malice. It holds for you no special love or hatred. It is not a hell-bent reaper but an ocean, flowing in and out like the tide. Sometimes when you walk upon its shores it will wet your feet, and others not. But the shore is still for you. And I hope the sharp rocks and sea urchins will be worth the treasures you find washed up by the waves.
There is no other shoe to drop. The only weight above your head is the sky. And for all you have done, and all you feel you deserve, there is nothing due. No reward. No punishment. People hold grudges, but you will find existence free of such grievances. Counting the hours until judgement day, which is a Wednesday, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting punitive for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Double Cross', 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!