Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (a dragonfly), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Mental illness, Birds, Gun Mention (lots this episode), Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror, Smoking
Intro - Destiny, Catlike
You once owed so much to others. To your parents and the gods of your parents, to your teachers and their teachers. How your younger self would have wept to know that you would let so much of everything that once held your devotion fall away, and grow into a very different creature indeed. Perhaps it was you that altered her fate. Perhaps it was always changed. It is easy to look into the past, but studying the future is a more difficult task by far, and it occupies your thoughts in the long night. Destiny, catlike, stares back.
When you kneel to pray, you remember your father; when you cover your hair, you think of your mother. With your cards and knuckles and tea you pry secrets from the future’s grasp, for that is all gods are, and you carry a burning eye upon your hip, and seek out secrets hidden in great libraries, for although you have learned much, there is a final question for which you must find an answer.
When you have it, you will finally know the point, of all of this, your memories and fragments and rituals, this life with its blades and cats and stalking beasts, this world which whispers Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I am sitting on a large rock. The surface is flat, and heats up in the sun most pleasantly. It is popular with its single denizen, who tries in this moment to unwind from the burdens of leadership and priesthood alike. Unfortunately, there is no rest for the gainfully employed. The theme of tonight’s episode is loyalties.
Story 1 - Old Queens, New Queens
Change happens when you least expect it, thought Grug, Drown Priest of She Who Lurks Beneath The World. Often you don’t even realize until later that anything is different. One day you have legs. One day you have lungs. One day you work for the goddess of your people, leading them into divine battle against the ones made of pink meats, to further some big forest plan or another.
It was good, Grug thought, laying on the sunlit rock where he had once whiled away his hours. He had less time to bask, now, and missed those naive days when he could sneak away to play paper games in the place of lights. Her eye was a storm, and it was always on him now.
But he had not been eaten, and sacrifices to the lake were plentiful, and she smiled on them all. He did not know exactly what would come next, but they had broken apart the walls of the nest in the forest, broken their wooden stickthings and metal bands, ruined their gardens. It would be time, soon, Grug suspected, for the swarming, the thrashing, the war-hunt and the great triumph.
A dragonfly passed by ten feet away, and Grug caught it with his tongue. Soon, though, they would have better meat. The warmth of the sun made the mud on his head too dry; he would have to moisten it again before the crown of skulls fell off. He rose from his rock, and froze suddenly; there was a sound over the trees.
Not the gidduk-gidduk of new children.
Not the brrok-brrok-brrok of be careful invaders.
But the waugheea-waugheea of the Mother.
Grug wrapped his hands around his Drown Priest Stick and went bounding through the forest, thirty feet at a time. The pebbles and shells attached to the end of his spear rattled as he did. Water sparkled through the distant trees, and he could see others moving, swarming like him, drawn by the Mother’s call. Lolgmololg’s first command had been to put the Mother away, bring her to the Watching Lake. Grug raced to find it now, joining the gathering throng, every neckpouch swollen with concern.
Grug burst from the forest onto the shore of the Watching Lake; beneath the surface, a thousand eyes stared up at him—each one a little clear egg, with pupils of not-yet-froglins who would someday hatch and learn to swim.
The Mother, the Queen, was twenty times Grug’s size, and Grug was bigger than his fellows. She had more arms, more eyes than he did, required no mate to grow their horde beneath the lake. And currently, his mother did not bask on the warm rocks, or float in the cool lake depths, but rather was half in the forest, a strange place for a mother to be. All her many limbs scrabbled against the dirt, scattered shrubs with great thrashes, and she let loose another bellowing croak.
Help me, she said. I am being inconvenienced.
Grug leaped closer, feet kicking in the gravel, and he rounded part of her gigantic warty abdomen—there were chains, he realized, long lines with hooks wrapped around her skull, caught in the thorns of her bulbous head.
And there, in the forest, was one that Grug had seen before—the displeaser of She Who Lurks, the sacrifice-thief. He had a dead dog at his side, and a dead one stood beside him, pulling the chains tighter, yanking the queen from the comforts of her lake into the prickly forest beyond.
The other Froglins leaped closer past him, croaking in fury, raising their sharp sticks and spears, but Grug could only watch, and the sacrifice-thief stared back at him, and lifted his sharp cutter towards the queen.
Grug could not understand the words the pink one was shouting, but he knew the gesture, the tone, the intention.
Why is it always me who ends up in these situations, Grug thought. Such stress is not good for me.
Grug let out a commanding croak; a counter to the mother’s wailing roars, and the horde paused in their jumps, and turned to look at him. All their glassy wide eyes, staring in horror. Drown Priest, they were thinking, why would you tell us to stop?
Grug croaked, even louder this time. Do not charge. They will hurt her if you charge.
The froglin horde stared in awe for a moment, even as the queen screeched again and was drawn out of the water completely. They were not killing her, Grug realized, in a flash of fury hotter than any sunning stone. This was revenge.
Grug let out a low, chuckling croak. You think you can do this to us and escape? We will follow you, follow you closely, and if it takes days we will find a way to bring our mother back safe…
There was another sound, then, a crack of thunder, the opening of a storm in Grug’s mind. Half a mile away, She Who Lurks Beneath The World was speaking, and her voice fell into their thoughts like rain into the cold ocean.
Return, said the goddess of the water. Return to me.
Grug wailed; a cry to his mother and the storming sky. Chase the queen and disobey the goddess; return to the froglin city and lose their mother to the forest.
The strangers roared to each other in their own tongue, and for a moment Grug felt as if Lolgmololg herself had his head in a cage; was pulling him through the water into ever-deeper trouble.
Return, Lolgmololg called again, a command like a rising tide. Our war cannot sleep, and I have much for you to do.
Grug called a last time to his mother, and the chorus around him joined in, wailing cries that filled the air as the queen was pulled from her sanctuary, from the Watching Lake, and into the dark trees beyond.
Grug blinked, and with a final yelp returned through the forest to the froglin city, where the queen of the drowned, the summer storm, the warmth-bringer was large in the water. The others stood at the shore surrounding him, waiting for their Drown Priest to speak, to make it all clear, to help them understand, and they sang mourning songs as Grug approached the dark water.
Grug fell to his feet, and placed his hands in the mud at the shoreline.
I hope this will be worth it, he thought. That we will get her back. I know you have always hated her, but she is our mother. My mother.
I am your god, the thoughts returned, and the waters of the lake washed up and around him, were cold on his face—and I can give you so much more. Rally the war parties. Sing the war songs. It is time for the feasting and the triumph. It is time to destroy the ones with the pink meat. It is time.
Interlude 1 - Have You Seen My Hat?
You encounter him on the street one night, and think nothing of it. Why should you? You have seen taller men, although not many, and half of Gettysburg seems to live permanently in costume. He carries a shaking lantern in one hand, and raises the other to you as you pass by. ‘Have you seen my hat,’ he asks? You reply that you have not, and continue on your way.
You pass him again in the nights to come, and each time, he asks the same question, and those glass eyes bore into your skull. Each time, you tell him you have not, but on the last occasion you ask, what kind of hat is it?
He seems not to hear you, and keeps walking onwards, his lantern glistening into the unlit street, the shadows of battlefields in the distance, and you realize that the back of his head is missing. Do you avoid the street from now on, you wonder? How long has he been searching? Certainly he has witnessed the end of a war, and the dawn of tourism over his grave, and its fall in turn. He is a ghost in a ghost town, now, and you are the living dead.
You bring a hat for him, the last night. It is a baseball cap from a sports team you do not remember, but it is something. The tall man stares at it in awe, tries to take it from your hands, finds no purchase in its threadbare form. He does not seem to notice, and he smiles.
“Thank you,” he says, and is gone, and the street is quiet. You leave the hat on the pavement, and begin to walk again. There is only one ghost in Gettysburg now, and it is you.
We go now to one questioning to which side she belongs.
Story 2 - Four Horsemen
“Fourscore and twenty years ago or something like that,” Oswald Biggs Botulus said, “I started a company that I hoped would change the world. Then somewhere along the line, I apparently made some bad hiring decisions, because disaster tails the four of you like a bad smell in a storm cellar. What are you, the four horsemen of my personal apocalypse?”
It was all in dream, of course; a reflection of Mr. Botulus’ old conference room, with stars and spinning constellations turning beyond the windows, and a table made of one great ancient rune-set slab. Brooklyn glanced between the other guests at the table; she was grateful she stood in the wings with the other aids, watching the grisly scene like vultures.
If the four were horsemen, Velma Burfield was probably Plague. Rumor was that Botco’s resident Family Doctor was on the hook for some unfortunate complications. Brooklyn hadn’t been filled in on those, but wondered if more details would emerge in the meeting.
Anderson Faust was Death, although he had many pale horses growing in elaborate tanks, Brooklyn suspected. She knew the particulars that Lady Ethel complained about—he made dream amplifiers that broke down immediately, and he had provided Oswald with a Riot Maidstone. But beyond all that, he was the grey matter of the Botulus Corporation, the uncredited spark of genius underneath the mighty coals of their company.
Melanie Flores, Brooklyn thought, would be Famine. Thin like a dry field and smiling her withering smile across a thousand social reflections, permeating the Prime Dream with her influence. The bounty she ruined, specifically, belonged to Lady Ethel.
I suppose I work for War, Brooklyn thought. Brewing storms on all sides, red from floor to ceiling, heart-shaped glasses to conceal the fires of destruction in her eyes. Her tongue was a sword and she cleaved through every head in the Prime Dream each night, each hour. Brooklyn eyed the other assistants. Melanie’s aid was new; she was unlikely to remain confident in her old one after the recent debaucles. Velma’s secretary was a cross older man whose frown was more honest than Velma’s constant smile. And she knew nothing about Anderson’s; even in a serious context like the conference room, he was only a shadow. She expected they would all be nursing their masters’ wounds after this.
“Why don’t you explain to us why you’ve called this meeting, and we can proceed from there,” Lady Ethel crooned. She had dreamt herself with a wide hat and riding gloves; beneath her glasses she grinned in red lipstick. Melanie seemed not to be sleeping well; her form shook and blurred minutely. Brooklyn had never met Velma or Anderson in real life, but they seemed similar enough to their company portraits; Anderson wore a black suit and thin rubber gloves, and Velma wore a meaningless stethoscope over her white coat.
“Why I’ve called this meeting? Where do I start,” Oswald said. “Because the four of you are intertwined. It’s like teamwork but terrible. Your individual failures are attracted to each other like college kids in a karaoke bar. But I think it all kicks off with Velma.”
Botco’s family doctor looked blanched, and she frowned, which seemed to defy the smile lines of her face. “I have always done the best I could with the science available, Mister Botulus.”
“Tell that to the folks that were in Box Aries,” Oswald replied. “‘We did the best we could with the science we had available.’ No, that’s good. We’ll let you sample what they were drinking, write that in your obituary.”
Velma shuddered. “No one expected the water to be so difficult to filter. It’s unlike any other contaminant. And certainly we ran tests early on, they seemed fine. Perhaps if our filtration systems were more advanced…”
“We’d only know to improve my support systems,” Anderson jumped in, “if our health officers had kept better track of our customers’ health.”
Box Aries, Brooklyn wondered? With the Stonemaid sabotage? The dreamers who hadn’t been able to reconnect included people she knew.
“No, I’m holding you both accountable for this,” Oswald said, waving a pinstripe sleeve to Anderson and Velma alike. “Obviously, Velma, we’re facing a crisis, they just don’t know it yet. And you should have been on this a decade ago. Who knows how long some of these folks have been stewing. And Anderson, this was one of our biggest promises. Hey, you, Chuck from Idaho, we’re going to keep you safe from all that nasty black rain. Come hide in here where it can’t get you. Of course, nobody would be waking up if we didn’t also have a marketing problem. Lady Ethel, what exactly does Public Relations mean to you? It’s in your job description, if that jogs your memory.”
“No business sees constant growth upward,” said the Lady. “Slow periods allow for new development and innovation. We’re scoring very high right now on favorability, and with every Stonemaid sympathizer we remove from the Prime Dreamscape, our percentages increase. We will get through this.”
“Yes,” Melanie nodded. Agreeing with Lady Ethel? Rare form for her. “Exactly. We’ll manage this. Make things better.”
“Unfortunately, that’s not possible when you have faulty leadership,” Lady Ethel continued.
Melanie fell silent. Brooklyn smiled.
“Believe it or not, I have more grievances to air,” Oswald sighed, and produced a cigar. The smoke swirled in the air, ascended to the dark ceiling of the conference room. “Anderson, I gave you an exciting new project because I needed a Riot Maidstone. I do not have a Riot Maidstone. I consider that a failure.”
“A failure?” Anderson said, and there was a wild light in his congenial eyes. “I’d call this a whopping success. I’ve produced a real human being, almost a carbon copy, like you’d print a document. The technology will improve in time, allow for more emotional stability, but what I’ve done is a scientific miracle. From the sound of it, my little bird is flying just right. I believe the fault is with her cage.”
“Anderson, you creep me out,” Oswald said. “I ever tell you that? Maybe you can get Velma to check that out. Melanie Flores. I looked out and saw, what, a humble press secretary, writing anniversary pamphlets? But I thought, let’s take a chance, the girl might have potential.”
“And I so appreciate the opportunity to expand my…” Melanie began.
“So let’s put her in charge of a project that could build the future of this humble company. This nation, really. Take Anderson’s new creation and steer her where we need to go. People person skills. Whatever happened to those? Melanie, based on the documents that cross my desk, somehow you’ve let our Riot fumble the end of the Stonemaid rebellion, and let her get kidnapped from your very own Box Andromeda. If I asked you to watch my picnic I’d come back to three ants and an empty blanket.”
“It was Ethel,” Melanie said suddenly, sitting straight upright in her chair. “Ever since she broke into Box Andromeda and talked to my Riot, there’s been trouble. She knew this would happen. Just look at her face.”
Melanie breathed heavy for a moment, and looked from one horseman to the next, and finally to Oswald. Lady Ethel frowned politely, but Brooklyn knew that inwardly, she was grinning wide. She had won. Oswald looked over to her, his bushy brows low over his eyes.
“Well that’s a heck of an allegation,” Oswald said, and waved his hand. As he did, images from the previous night began to flit over the table like wayward papers, a young person with blue hair pulling drones out of the sky, and a Riot Maidstone with menace in her eyes and a sword in her hand. “Lady Ethel Mallory, did you have any idea that Kid Olympus and the Riot we presumed dead would break in to Box Andromeda, steal Valerie Maidstone who we all need, and fly off into the night and ruin my sleep?”
“I was asleep in Box Cassiopeia, as you might expect,” said Lady Ethel. “But if I had been on the scene of this calamity, I certainly wouldn’t have allowed them to escape. And I especially would not have led them personally through the halls of Box Andromeda.”
It occurred to Brooklyn that she could open her mouth and end the Lady’s career. How many tireless hours Marco had spent watching Riot make moves at the Scoutpost via their drones. The footage they’d destroyed from Box Polaris. The Cluster’s pursuit across America.
Brooklyn said nothing. The images on the table changed; the Lady’s influence, she was sure. Security footage, body cameras. Melanie, white coat and frazzled hair, and the Other Riot following close behind her towards Valerie’s chambers.
“I didn’t know,” Melanie said quietly. “Nobody would have known. It was absurd.”
“From what I’ve heard, moments before the attempted heist, every door in Box Andromeda came wide open,” Lady Ethel continued. “I don’t suppose you knew anything about that, either?”
Brooklyn looked down at the shadow of a floor; Melanie was on a string at this point, and Lady Ethel was playing with her food.
“I’ve seen enough,” said Oswald. “We’ve got a hell of a mess to clean up. My people will be putting together a full report. In the meantime. Velma, I want answers. How many boxes are we looking at that are just like Box Aries? Lady Ethel, everything needs to feel happy. Peachy-keen. And I don’t care which one of you does it, but I want my Riot back so we can keep these idiot Stonemaids asleep as long as it takes for us to leave this damn planet and keep the human race alive. Spare no expense. And Melanie, you’re demoted until further notice.”
Oswald was gone without a moment’s hesitation, and the chamber with it; and Brooklyn was overcome with panic—Box Aries was contaminated. And Melanie Flores was crying, and Lady Ethel smiled as wide as the sky.
Marketing - Such Activism
Lady Ethel: This is Lady Ethel Mallory with a concerning announcement from the Botulus Corporation. After several weeks of being strong enough to join us in the Prime Dream, both Riot and Valerie Maidstone have developed severe and unexpected complications as a result of their decades-long exposure to the outside world. They have both been placed in emergency treatment. We ask you to hold them in your thoughts, prayers, and social posts at this time.
Even I haven’t been allowed to visit either of them, but although I am worried, Valerie would want us to hold strong. It’s a good time for us to ask… why was it Valerie? Why did one relatively unknown band leader become the figurehead for such activism?
As you go about your games and routines, exploring new worlds, rediscovering old memories, ask yourself—would Valerie really want me to destroy this life? Or would she celebrate it with me, in true rock and roll fashion? As a close acquaintance of hers, I can say with certainty that the Stonemaid brand was never supposed to be about destruction, but rather, a celebration of our differences…
Story 2, Continued - Four Horsemen
Believe me, Lady Ethel, Valerie Maidstone will be in more thoughts than you realize. Let us hope she is faster than your drones and reunion organizers.
We return now to Brooklyn Williams.
Brooklyn sat curled on the ground, head in her hands. The summer winds were chill at this altitude, a concealed balcony in the high reaches of Box Cassiopeia where no eyes or ears were hidden. Far below and in the distance, an ocean washed on a pale white shoreline.
“We shouldn’t be up here,” she said. “Now of all times. It’s suspicious.”
She felt an arm fall around her shoulders, and leaned in against the shell of Marco’s body armor.
“I’ll risk a little suspicion right now,” he said. “It sounds like we’re the least of their worries. How was the conference?”
She looked up at him; could only find an innocent sparkle in his eyes.
“Marco?” she said. “I think I heard things that I wasn’t supposed to.”
“Are you in trouble?” he said, immediately shifting into concern. She shook her head, and fiddled with one of the buckles on his armored vest. He seemed more tired than usual; a soft face shadowed by the dark glass of his helmet. The passing weeks had been difficult for them both.
“No, not like that exactly. Just… hm.”
“You can tell me,” he said. “I already know about the two Riots, what could be worse than that?”
“You’d be surprised,” Brooklyn said.
“Well, if you’re not going to tell me what’s upset you specifically,” Marco said, leaning back against the metal wall behind them, “tell me about how you’re feeling.”
“All this time I thought we were… doing something good. Maybe not all the time. But in the end. The Lady has her quirks, and there’s workplace policies, but I thought… by and large, that we were doing the right thing. Saving people. Helping them survive. Now I’m not so sure. And I’ve given up so much, Marco. I’ve worked so hard to get here. It feels like a waste. And I’m scared.”
“I’m not going to lie, the lack of context is killing me,” he said.
“If I give you context they might kill you,” Brooklyn said.
“Tell me,” said Marco.
Brooklyn was silent for a moment, listening to the faraway ocean.
“You know I have a cousin at Box Aries?” she said. “I haven’t seen her since it went dark. But the official story was that the Stonemaids sabotaged the box. Woke everyone up. And their brains couldn’t handle it. And they’ve been quarantined from the Prime Dream ever since. But they haven’t been disconnected because of waking up, Marco. They were contaminated. With the black rain. It was in their water, in their Dreaming Garden, in everything. And when they woke up, people realized what was happening to their bodies. And Botco will never put them back because they could tell other people. I am never going to see her again.”
Marco was silent for a long moment, and held her close. “I don’t know where to begin,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not just Box Aries,” Brooklyn continued. “And that’s what’s really messing me up. It could be others. They don’t know what to do. If this information got out, it could ruin everything.”
“No kidding,” Marco said.
“This wasn’t the point, you know?” Brooklyn said, and took off her glasses, pushed her hands into her hair. “We’re bombarding every sleeping person who’s left out there with dream advertisements, for what? So they can stop drinking the water out there and come get it here instead? It’s been a problem for so long and we’ve been selling the whole time like nothing was wrong.”
“It’s not your fault,” Marco said.
“It’s not your fault,” Brooklyn said, looking up. “You’re in security. But I’m responsible for this. At least a little. When the Lady gets up and goes to her meetings, it’s because I put them on her calendar. When she opens up a new campaign, I’m the one who writes down all the details and passes them on to the right departments. I’m in marketing. The blood is on my hands.”
“We’ve both been doing what we had to do,” Marco said, taking his arm from around her, folding his hands over his knees. There was a look in his eyes as though he was waiting for something to cross the horizon.
“I could have done something else,” Brooklyn groaned. “Worked in BotInd. Maybe the History Line. Anything but this.”
“Brooklyn, I have news too,” he said, and took off his helmet; the lights on the inside flickered and fell asleep. “But if I tell you this, my life is literally in your hands. Please be careful with it.”
“Of course,” she said, straightening up. “What’s this about?”
Marco looked down at his helmet, watched his reflection in the glass, and looked up at her. His face was a few days short of a shave, and his hair was tousled over his head.
“I’ve received a message,” he said. “From one of the Stonemaids. They want information. And if we can provide it, Brooklyn, they’ll help us escape.”
Interlude 2 - A Cosmic Twist
There are many forms of life that dwell in this cold expanse of a universe. You’ve noticed at least some of them I hope. Humans, and a thousand others in the same mundane caliber—products of evolution and gardening. Blooming like flowers, withered like rose petals.
Above them, transcendent, is Indescribable life, but we can be defined only by our tendency to break your humble minds if you lay eyes upon us. Among us are great titans and lurking presences, timeless worms and chitinous horrors, serene lovers and impossible destroyers, the engines and the scientists of the cosmos, those that congregate in the Council of Heavens.
But there are others, I think, your kind would also call Indescribable. Great Destroyers, when they have grown large, and soul-eating parasites, and the ghouls that haunt the back alleys of your dimension. More of these than you would expect have turned their attention to your little earth, now that it is so beautifully corrupted and free of the Industry’s grasp.
There are lastly the agents of Indescribables, some created of the fire of souls, but more often a little twist of the cosmic in your mortal bones, a transformation into something new and deadly and devoted.
Or, in one particular case, change for change’s sake, blind twists and dashes of the artist’s brush, nature reformed into stranger natures, called by old mechanism into heraldry and prophecy and stewardship.
We go now to a product of one such metamorphosis.
Story 3 - You And I Should Talk
“That was my one condition, you know,” said Jonah’s mother, with her shotgun in her lap, watching the vehicles drive in through the gateway. “That they’d have watercress here.”
“Well, I may be able to risk a market trip for ya soon,” said Jonah, sitting in the chair beside her. Jackie sat at his feet, ears perked up, black fur on end. “Assuming these Fort Freedom people can hold down the fort.”
“What?” said Zelda.
“I’ll go to the market for you soon,” Jonah reiterated.
“Well good,” Zelda sniffed, and peered down over the edge at the people from Fort Freedom—more than Jonah had expected, a lot more, each strapped with weapons. Weren’t they supposed to be slim on weapons? Wasn’t that the point?
“They don’t seem friendly,” Zelda said, and patted the gun in her lap. “I could tell ‘em to get a move on.”
“Put that away,” Jonah said. “That’s what they’re working on right now. Violet’s in that there office talking all this out. What do you think that is?”
He pointed to the back of a large flatbed truck, which was piled high with something covered in a tarp.
“I bet it’s not watercress,” Zelda sighed.
“We need to find you a new favorite sandwich,” Jonah said, and took his hat in his hands, tried to fix a bend in the brim.
“You’re so rude to your mother,” Zelda mused, and leaned back in her chair.
“You doing okay?” Jonah said. She seemed so much older since he had carried her from Solomon’s basement; confused or quiet for longer periods, and the years were heavy on her skin.
“I’m alright,” she nodded, and pushed the frizz of her hair back. “I can get around just fine. Al is a handful, but he’s causing less trouble with the other children, so I’m told. He reminds me of you, you know. Little Jonah. So many questions about everything. Do you think he’ll ever grow up, or will he be a kid forever? I hope when I die I’m not a ghost with this many wrinkles.”
“You’re not going to die,” Jonah said, and nudged her shoulder. In the courtyard, a Fort Freedom soldier looked up at him.
“You know something I don’t?” Zelda said, and polished the barrels of her shotgun in a fold of her winter coat, which she wore over a thin summer dress and boots. “Course I will. Not soon if I can help it. But if it turns out we’re being invaded I’ll go down shooting.”
“Have you seen Hector around?” Jonah said. “He said goodnight to me yesterday, but I haven’t seen him recently.”
“I don’t remember,” Zelda said. “Don’t think so. Is everything good with you two? Are you happy?”
“We’re happy,” Jonah said. “It’s a little difficult. We’re trying to figure out what life looks like for us. What we want. He’s a bit of a lone wolf and I’ve been… feeling strange.”
“You’ve always been strange,” Zelda said. “It looks like whatever you want it to look like. That’s my secret. Like a painting, you remember when I’d do my paintings? They were terrible, but I wanted to paint and they were mine. So there. I asked out that lady at the school—Miss Blum—but she said she wasn’t into older women. But if she’d said yes, well, as long as we both were happy, woulda been fine.”
“Isn’t that one of Al’s teachers?” Jonah said.
“No more detention for Al,” Zelda smiled briefly. “But I’m back to the drawing board.”
Jackie raised her head from beside Jonah’s feet and gave a long, low growl.
“Easy girl,” Jonah said. “What’s the matter?”
The dog stood up, and bared her teeth, looking behind them. A doorway led inside to rooms and staircases, and there was a person crouched in the frame, pale as an uncooked holiday turkey. It was Buck.
“Please don’t let her eat me,” Buck whispered.
“Oh hey, Buck,” Jonah waved. “Jackie—down, girl. Ma, this is Buck from Fort Freedom. Didn’t know if you’d make it back to visit.”
“I wasn’t supposed to,” Buck whispered, and Jonah had the growing sense that something was wrong. “I stowed away. Mister Jonah, it may be quiet right this moment, but you shouldn’t’a let my folks in here. I don’t think they mean you well.”
“I told you,” Zelda said, and switched off the safety on her gun.
“Ma, stop that,” Jonah said. “Buck, why are you here? What are these people going to do?”
“I don’t know entirely, I wasn’t there for the planning,” Buck said. “But Mrs. Wicker has been big on survival and such. Says we have to take what we need. I think she’s fixing to take from you. And… I’m here ‘cause I don’t want to be a part of it. Fort Freedom. It ain’t been kind to me, not like y’all have been. I wanna stay here at the Scoutpost, if you’ll have me… otherwise, I don’t know where I’ll go.”
“You a spy?” Zelda said, and raised an eyebrow. Buck looked between the two of them with a panicked expression; he looked like he hadn’t slept in a few days.
“Buck, I’m not exactly the one in charge around here, but I’m sure we’d be happy to have you here,” Jonah said, waving Zelda down. “Do you know how much time we have? What are they going to do?”
There was a commotion, then, from the courtyard beneath them, and loud cries as a huge shape loomed in the scaffolds of the Lurch Lake Gate. Big Mikey, coming out of his hiding place beyond the wall, asking for a new book.
Suddenly, Fort Freedom’s crowd of soldiers was up in arms, and a magazine of bullets went off in the air, and there were screams across the Scoutpost. Big Mikey shrieked and stomped around with his elephantine legs, shattering the scaffolds around the Lurch Lake Gate, and then with a rattle of chains the tarp came flying away from the flatbed truck in the Scoutpost’s lot.
Jonah’s truck, Hector’s motorcycle, and the hearse that once belonged to Walter Pensive were parked amidst Fort Freedom’s convoy, and rising from the back of the flatbed was a huge shape, almost as tall as Big Mikey—a long serpentine neck, and a beak like an obsidian spear, and oil black feathers that stuck in all directions.
The gigantic heron stepped down into the Scoutpost parking lot, huge claws sinking into the gravel as it scanned the courtyard with a pinpoint eye. Jonah was on his feet immediately, looking for Violet, for Hector, for anyone who could take charge, and Fort Freedom’s men dashed across the Scoutpost courtyard, weapons in their hands. Jonah swore he could hear other sounds, too; from the treeline beyond, a croaking call he knew immediately.
Lolgmololg. Lolgmololg. Lolgmololg.
“Ma, get inside,” Jonah called, but Zelda already had her shotgun propped up on the railing. The Scoutpost’s population came to life, and there were javelins in the hands of dozens with those yellow jackets and patches, running in all directions. The Mendies emerged below, blade fingers like razor fans, and there was a shake on Violet’s office door from the inside.
In the distance, Big Mikey screamed as a soldier with a rifle unloaded two rounds into his huge chest. Big Mikey brought a fist down in return, flattening him into the stones of the Scoutpost courtyard, and the Scoutpost was filled with the smoke of gunfire then, and Zelda took a shot at the great head of the heron as it passed by their balcony.
The gigantic bird shrieked, and turned towards them, and as its javelin beak came darting towards their perch, he shoved Zelda out of the way. He looked down to find a white-hot pain in his chest; he had been impaled, he realized. And then the bird shook him away, and slammed his body into the rock two stories below, and he was dead before the second impact of its hungry beak.
“Dammit, not now,” Jonah said, and opened his eyes upon a world of black stone and green starlight, and shook his head in disgust. He had to get back, and he had gotten better at it. He stood up, and glanced across the obsidian desert before realizing that it was not empty, as with every time before. A huge form shuddered across the rocks, as black as the stone beneath them; a protruding maw made of a hundred little squirming pieces.
Rats, he realized, hundreds upon hundreds of rats, piled together in one great shape, and a crown of green flame burgeoned into the misty light over its head. A multitude of eyes turned towards him, and a cluster of jaws fell open as a whisper flooded his head.
“You and I should talk,” said the rats.
“I’ll be back later,” Jonah nodded, and although he could not bring himself to look away, he reached out to draw the emerald stars close, felt their cold heat gather over his head, and cosmic winds fluttered in his grey hair and beard, and he collapsed all the universe for a door back into the living world. “I have to go rescue my ma!”
Outro - Loyalties
Loyalties. Do not forget that you owe allegiance only to those you choose. What you have been given has been given freely. And your responsibility is to care for this body and this life of yours, as long as you are here to steward them.
Be gentle with your head and heart and hands, for you are not designed to carry much weight. Great Destroyers can. They swim in black holes for fun. But if you dwell on the earth, you are fragile, and would do well to take precautions against shattering.
What gives you peace? What brings you happiness? Where in this life do you find sanctuary, and the small joys that make it an experience worth having? To these, cling. Take all of them that you can. They will make it easier to weather what is to come.
Until all allegiances are forgotten, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting steadfast for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Gambit', 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!