Content warnings for this episode include: Saliva & Bodily Fluids, Paralysis, Abuse, Ableism, Animal death (a worm), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Broken Bones, Dysphoria, Birds, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Bugs and Spiders, Body horror
Intro - The Unspoken Rule
You are a bully, and it does not bother you that much. Your friends are prone to little cruelties, and you laugh, and try to take it a step further, and they in turn. It can always go a step further.
Today’s is a tame sport; you jeer in turns at the other students swimming in the conservatory pool. It is deeper than you would expect, a little ocean. One of your jests goes awry, and a hushed whisper falls on your friends as they scatter, and your victim rises from the pool, taller than you by a foot. You have broken the unspoken rule: do not make fun of Victoria Tepiani’s mustache. Suddenly your school uniform seems shabby armor indeed, and with a single lunge she pushes you into the water, in front of everyone.
You are beneath the surface, then, faster than a stone, come to rest on the tile floor. You cannot swim, but you realize you can breathe in the strangest fashion. You raise your hands to your neck and find it broken apart with slick gills. You scream, but no sound escapes to the surface; only bubbles bearing a Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now I am surrounded by stupid creatures. Their glassy eyes stare uncomprehending at the surface of the world above them, and their mouths hang open in numb-lipped bewilderment. If only they knew that creatures from a world much larger plot their demise. Worry not, dreamer. I speak of fish. The theme of tonight’s episode is Lungs.
Story 1 - Itching Less
Arnold Eggers had discovered that if you itched for long enough, eventually life was all itch, and you stopped noticing. He felt this principle applied to a lot of things. When his parents had put him in Downing Hill, his brain had been swollen with strange afflictions. Rooms that moved and doors that weren’t doors. Paintings that ate your friends, principles with pitch-black eyes and librarians with heads made of static. But eventually all the bewildering facts had stopped itching, and the library had begun to feel like home. Perhaps, he thought, in a couple weeks, I’ll be happy living here in the trees and mud.
Here’s to hoping, he thought, and slung a big rock into the water. The water burst up in a big ker-plunk at the impact, and sent little fish scattering in every direction.
“Arnold, what are you doing?” Victoria said, looking up.
“I thought I’d get a fish,” Arnold said. “I missed though.”
“You’re only scaring them away,” Victoria grunted, and produced the work of the last half hour—a stick, with a string pulled from one of her skirts tied to the end. A little piece of metal dangled at the end, bent in a rough loop.
“What’s that?” Arnold said.
“It’s a fishing rod,” Victoria said, thrusting it in his hands. “I don’t know if it’ll work, but it’s better than a rock. Find a worm or something for bait.”
“How do I use it?” Arnold said. Victoria sighed.
“You’ve never been fishing?” Victoria said, pulling a second stick from the forest undergrowth.
“Never had nobody to teach me,” Arnold said, and swung the stick around in the air like a sword; immediately the hook was tangled on its string. “And I hate water stuff. Why’d it have to be me?”
“Because Clara knows how to forage and Friday is her new buddy-buddy,” Victoria said, pulling another long thread out from the embroidered roses in her skirt, and retrieving a second pin from her hair. “And Harrow is safest at the camp, working on the shelter.”
“I could have worked on the shelter,” Arnold grumbled.
“I’ve seen your class projects,” Victoria said. “Did you find bait?”
Arnold looked around the mud bank beneath his galoshes, but did not find a worm, so he got down on his knees to better inspect. A little spider with striped legs went skittering away from him, and he jumped, almost fell in the water, splashed his hand. He hid it behind him immediately as Victoria looked up at him and raised a disappointed eyebrow. He smiled back at her, and she shook her head and went back to bending her hairpin.
He turned away and inspected his hand discreetly. Already the skin of his palm had puckered into whitish points, and a thick slime coated his fingers. He tried to dry it off on his trousers.
“Look,” Victoria said, arriving suddenly beside him with a writhing black worm pinched between her fingers.
“See? Worm. Now you hook it, like this, and cast it out.”
The string did not allow for much reach, and Victoria squatted on the shoreline, the toes of her boots in the water, holding the stick out over the surface of the lake. The worm twisted beneath the sheen of the sunlight on the water.
“How long do you wait?” Arnold said, stepping away from the water, and glancing at his hand to make sure the weird spots had disappeared again. He turned his attention back to the mud; if I were a worm, where would I be, he thought?
“You wait as long as it takes to catch a fish,” Victoria said, watching her makeshift bait. Arnold nodded, and his eyes brightened as he found another worm wriggling between the black roots of the shoreline. He picked it up, cupped it in his hands, oddly dry and moist at the same time. He was getting the hang of this.
Then there was a ker-plunk.
“I thought you said no rocks,” he said, and turned to find Victoria was gone, and her fishing stick floated on the rippling surface of the lake. The worm fell out of Arnold’s hands.
“Victoria?” he called. She did not resurface.
He looked behind him to the forest. Could he find his way back? It was maybe half an hour to reach Harrow at their camp, and… maybe Clara would be back by now?
Or, he thought, maybe not.
Maybe Clara wouldn’t be back until late. Maybe they’d all come to the lake together after dark and they’d only be able to look at the empty water where Victoria had tried to show him how to fish. And they’d all look at Arnold and say… why didn’t you do anything?
Arnold looked back to the lake with wide eyes, his heart pounding.
“I’m coming,” he tried to say, although it came out as more of a nervous croak. He put one foot ahead of the other, watched the hungry black water grow larger with each step. It made fun of him, laughed as it sparkled in the sun.
There was a burst of bubbles, exploding from the surface of the lake like rocks thrown from below. Arnold looked down to find himself standing on the edge of the lake, and he yelped as he kicked off his shoes, and the water poured through the holes in his socks.
And then, with one final adrenaline-driven shriek, he leaped in.
It wasn’t a very big leap; the water splashed up to his knees, but already he could feel the slime and stones of the lake beneath his toes, soaking into his clothing and his skin. I’m going to hate myself after this, he thought, and fell face-first into the water.
It was shockingly cold, for a moment, and then it was soothing, as cool and slick as aloe vera. He opened his eyes, and it was not to pain and murkiness, but a world in shifting fidelity, his extra eyelids kept the drifting particles at bay. He reached out to kick and paddle, and his hands were huge and knobbly, and there were thin webs between his fingers. The water slipped past him like butter, and with a kick he sailed deeper into the lake, scanning the flowing silt and lake weeds, and caught a glimpse of a golden sparkle.
“That’s her comb,” he said to himself, and choked on water for an agonizing moment, before he got back to breathing with the folds in his neck and not his lungs. He kicked again, and the gleaming surface of the mirror sky grew farther away as he sailed into the bubbling shadow. Then he was through the weeds, and Victoria was very close, thrashing beneath the water, skirt and sleeves billowing. There was a construction vehicle perched above her—or not a vehicle, he realized, but something else huge and striped with white and black rings, poles as thick as boom arms that pulled Victoria down and held her against the lake floor…
It was a spider, he realized, sitting on the floor of the lake, bubbles of air caught in its thorny hair, a glazed look in its gigantic pale eyes, and it unfolded its venomous jaws.
I’ve never done this before, thought Arnold. I never so much as want to think about it again. But like any gross schoolyard dare, it was purely necessary in the moment. The key was not to let it itch. Not to wait and think about it. You just had to do.
Arnold opened his mouth, and shrieked, not with his voice, but with the thing like a voice that shook his neck and chest and the lake around him like an earthquake, inflated beneath his chin, quivered in his bones.
And with eight milky eyes, the spider looked up from Victoria to Arnold. Arnold opened his mouth, and spat. Except it was not saliva he sent sailing, but his own tongue, somehow ten feet long, and it punched one of the spider’s eyes as well as his fists could have done. Except his fists did not stick, and his tongue did, and the spider was gigantic and alive at the end of it now, swinging its gigantic cable legs, and dragged him forward a few feet before it broke out of his grip. His tongue came peeling back into his mouth, covered in sharp little bristles.
Victoria was free from the gigantic lake spider’s grasp, twitching in the silt, staring up at the surface. With a powerful thrash, the spider came flowing towards Arnold, legs like the cape of a wizard, and brought a mouth like hedge trimmers down on his arm. For a brief, terrible moment, he could feel all the needle points of its jaws, tasting the thick mucus that coated his arm. Then the spider was gone, climbing away across the lake floor and into the darkness of the weeds beyond, a memory in the silt.
Arnold seized Victoria’s hand in his great webby ones, and with legs like springs propelled them for the surface, yanking her through the water. With a final ten-foot leap, he cleared the lake, and rolled with her onto the muddy shore, where he lay on his back, oozing gunk from every surface, trying to gasp for air with the right breathing apparatus, knuckles and fingers shifting and ker-plunking back into their right shapes.
Victoria lay on her back beside him, choking up water for a minute, and she shuddered.
“Did you know you could do that?” Victoria sputtered.
“Not really. A little, from the time you pushed me in to the pool,” Arnold said, watching the spined paddle of his toes recede. “I’m sorry.”
“No, thank you,” Victoria said; her muscles spasming oddly for a moment.
“I mean for back at the pool. I was making fun of your mustache and your arm hair and stuff. I sucked back then. And you pushed me in the pool, but I never said I was sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Victoria said, sitting up to wring out her hair; she held the golden comb in her palms. “I used to get a lot of that.”
“Me too, after that,” Arnold said. “But you shouldn’t have. You’re just normal. I was the ugly one.”
Victoria fixed her hair with the comb, and looked up at him without malice. “You’re not ugly, Arnold.”
Arnold inflated his neck again tentatively, and smiled at her. She stared at him, exhausted for a moment, and laughed.
“You’re not. This is… I mean, you’re kind of green and there is slime everywhere right now. So that’s new. But I’ve got my body. You’ve got yours. You’re not gross. This is just you, I think.”
“Thanks,” he said, and yelped as his eyeballs popped back into their right places. He rubbed at his face to make sure everything was where it belonged. “That’s just me, the ugly frog boy.”
“I’m serious,” Victoria said, leaning back against a tangle of roots on the muddy shore. “Listen. I grew up thinking I was just a girl. Nothing special. And then I hit puberty and it ruined my life. Or it felt like it, anyways. The girls I thought were my friends wouldn’t look at me the same, called me ugly. I got angry.
And it took me a long time to realize that my body isn’t wrong, just because it’s different. I’m not broken. And I can be proud and beautiful and whatever I want to be. I wish I’d known that sooner. Because you really shouldn’t grow up thinking that way about yourself, Arnold.”
“Mhm,” Arnold said, with his arms around his knees, and stared at the back of his hand. Some things, he supposed, he should ignore less. “Victoria? We didn’t catch any fish.”
“About that,” Victoria said, and raised an eyebrow at him. “If you’re open to it, I’ve got some new ideas.”
Interlude 1 - Benson The Dissembling Man
You will hear him first—those long, deep breaths that echo like clockwork, air passing mechanical through his exposed nostrils, whistles through bared teeth. You may even hear his dry, shambling steps, like leather against the museum floor, and you round a corner to find a pair of lungs on the ground, red and preserved, breathing for no one.
You may whirl around to find him just behind you then, old and bloody ritual brought unerringly to life, his bulbous eyes beholding you wildly, his eternal grin suspended on thin tendons. He is the Dissembling Man, and he is to be feared, for he has extensive knowledge of the human anatomy. He also has perfect emotional awareness, which will lead to uncomfortable questions that force you, too, to look inwards.
Worry not, dreamer, for you are unlikely to encounter him unless you visit the Museum of Broken Promises, where he guides the Great Destroyer on its ever-wandering paths through this universe. We go now to one who has just learned how to breathe.
Story 2 - The Weight of Waking Up
Who the hell is Arnold Eggers, Danielle thought, and then she woke up.
The world was blinding, and it was not so much that it was pure white, as films would have her believe, just that the brightness stabbed her eyes and made her skull feel like it was going to split in half. She groaned, and then stopped, because the noise she had made was not her voice, but a sort of walrus grunt.
“Danielle?” a voice said above her. “Are you awake? How do you feel?”
Her vision swam; she could make out a face, but the angles were all wrong, like a shattered mirror.
“I’m awake,” she said, and her voice was a canyon echo. “I can’t. Talk. Talk right.”
“Here,” the voice said, and she felt something touch her lips. “Drink. You will feel better.”
A liquid fell across her chin and down her throat; she coughed, swallowed in unfamiliar movements. There was weight on her body, clothes she did not recognize.
“Who are you?” Danielle said. The water did not help her voice; it was rough and too deep and belonged to someone else. “You carried me out of Box Andromeda, right?”
“My name is Diggory Graves,” the stranger said. Danielle’s vision still would not focus, but she could catch sight now of stitches, black thread piecing together cheekbones and solemn brows, pale eyes watching her from under a curl of black hair.
“Am I still dreaming?” Danielle said. “Are you real? You look like an avatar. A skin. You don’t look real.”
“I am real,” Diggory said. “I am a friend of Riot Maidstone. I am attending to you while she makes arrangements with the others. They are outside.”
Danielle tried to sit up, but could only shake; her hands trembled against the ground. “Diggory Graves? Your name is kind of a pun, I’m guessing you know that? Crazy coincidence if it’s not though. What’s wrong with my body? Why can’t I move?”
“I do not know,” Diggory said. “But Percy says you have spent your life inside of a Dreaming Pod. Your muscles may have atrophied, there may be other health effects as well. Your body will take some time to adjust.”
“My voice,” Danielle said. She was beginning to feel the weight of waking up. What had she done? She had thrown herself out into the world beyond, carried by strangers. In the Prime Dream, she could do anything. Right now, everything in her body ached, and she could not so much as lift her head. “This isn’t how I sound. You should know that. And my… do I look like… do you have a mirror?”
“I do not wish to bring you distress,” Diggory said. “Perhaps first we can find…”
“Diggory,” she said. Something glinted in her vision; Diggory wore a necklace with a little silver box, sculpted hands folded in prayer. “Mirror.”
Diggory rose—god, were they really that tall, or was that still her screwy vision?—and was gone for a moment. The ceiling wavered in and out of focus for her, but she could make out a skylight. It was the RV from Riot’s dreams, and she lay on the floor. Trails of sunlight shone through some of the windows, darkness outside of the others. Distant voices talked from somewhere beyond her hearing. Diggory returned a moment later, with a small mirror from the bathroom.
“Shall we try and sit you up?” Diggory said. Danielle pulled again, tried to gather her heavy body together, but it would not respond to her call.
“Yes please,” Danielle breathed.
Diggory’s hand was further proof that her vision was gone; their fingers were too long to be human, fingertips in long black points. She felt herself hoisted up, and new pain ran through her like a forest fire, the hard surface of the cabinetry behind her back, the rush of sitting up after a lifetime of laying still.
“I am sorry, did I hurt you?” Diggory said.
Danielle could not respond; felt the pressure on her lungs shift, just tried to breathe and not let the stars overwhelm her eyes. When her vision returned, she was looking at the face of a stranger. But the eyes moved when hers did; the mouth opened as she spoke.
“That’s not what I look like,” she said. Danielle of the Prime Dream was blonde and feminine and glowing. Danielle in the mirror had a scraggly dark beard and long matted hair and a face that was lumpy and unforgiving. Around her shoulders was a dirty leather jacket with spikes on the shoulders; she wore baggy pants that only went to her shins and a band t-shirt beneath it.
“Stop,” she whispered, just to see if it would work—if this was all some nightmare, if Botco had finally caught up with her, if she was still dreaming. The universe did not peel away. There was no escaping now, and that scared her more than anything; her heart raced so fast she thought it would erupt from her chest; she tried desperately to calm down.
“I am sure this is difficult,” Diggory said, taking the mirror away. “I did not enjoy my reflection when I first beheld myself, in dark lakes when the water was still. But I have come to appreciate some things, and change others. If there is anything we can do to make you happier with your appearance before you meet the others, let us know. Percy is a skilled hairdresser.”
“I’d like that,” Danielle said; her eyes burned, and tears dripped down her face. She could not raise her hands yet to remove them. “Who’s Percy?”
There was an object, then, that caught her eye, and it moved from Diggory’s pocket and hovered in the air—a little pair of silver sewing scissors, shaped like a heron. A whisper of a hand held them, and Danielle wondered for a moment if her vision had failed her entirely; a boy’s reflection floated in the air, smiling gently.
“I’m your resident hairdresser,” Percy said. “What would you like? Don’t worry, I’ve taken classes.”
Marketing - The Best Life You Have Left
Lady Ethel: Look at you, alone out there. Look at how far you’ve come. You’ve worked very hard, haven’t you? Every long mile, every scrap of food, every breath. Is there anything left out there even worth fighting for anymore? We at Botco believe there is. That’s why we’re committed to sustainable energy practices by 2100, and paving the path to a cleaner, more liveable world. It’s why we’re committed to exploring the universe in search of humanity’s new home. It’s why we’re committed to preserving our most precious natural resource: you.
But it’s not your responsibility. You deserve a happy, peaceful life. It’s not for you to try and solve humanity’s problems—it’s for us. That’s why we welcome you to join your local Dreaming Box. We take care of everything else—your transport, integration, and interment is completed in just a few easy steps.
Once you’re inside, you’ll be living the best life you have left.
Meanwhile, we’ll supply you with crisp clean air, healthy nutrients, and carefully filtered water via our feeding tubes. Your home, health, and happiness is our priority…
Story 2, Continued - The Weight of Waking Up
Let us be honest, there is no escape from the world that the Botulus Corporation has made, unless it is to a new world that they could also make a profit from. What lies on earth is safe from profiteers for now, although I expect the business departments at Botco are doing their best. I would make them rue the day, dreamer, if they tried to monetize what grows in these darkening woods now. More than they already have, at least.
We return now to Danielle O’Hara.
The ghost was good with scissors. Danielle wondered how normal the two beings orbiting around her really were. Not in a personal sense, but in a world sense. Were ghosts just a fact of life she’d never heard mentioned in the old memories? Were the mad scientist creations of old films simply reflections of an accepted truth? She wasn’t sure, now, but then again her life had been strange until that point. And, if her Grandma Laura was to be believed, strange ran in their family in particular.
And yet, unerringly real were the silver scissors snipping close by her immobile head, and Diggory’s cold razorblade fingers dragging soap and water and hair from her skin. Her face was still strange when she looked again in the little mirror, but at least smooth, and she had bangs that were roughly even, and her hair laid a little more evenly across her shoulders.
“What do you think?” whispered the ghost. “I wish I had conditioner. Diggory, do you think they made curling irons in silver?”
“I will keep an eye out, just in case,” Diggory said. Their eyes were mismatched, Danielle thought; their glazed pupils pointed in slightly different directions.
“I think this is as good as it gets,” Danielle said. “Are you wearing contact lenses?”
“No, they’re just dead,” said Percy.
“But not a ghost,” Danielle said.
“Not yet,” Diggory said. “I wonder if I could become a ghost.”
“Frankly, you’re taking the whole ghost thing better than most people do,” Percy said.
“I’ll be honest, my frame of reference for normal right now is completely screwed up,” Danielle said. “But if you’re supposed to be scary I can get all hysterical later. Is Riot here? Is Valerie? Can I meet her?”
“Certainly,” Diggory said, glancing towards the door of the RV, and down to Danielle’s wooden legs. “Are you able to stand?”
Danielle tried once more, pressed her palms against the ground, pushed it with her fingers. Her forearms ached from the tension and effort, but she could not rise.
“Yeah, I think I’ll need a little help if that’s okay,” Danielle said.
“We met someone named Milo who had this big plant monster that helped him get around,” Percy said, as Diggory put arms around Danielle and lifted her. “I wish we had one of those for you.”
“That sounds even worse than this,” Danielle said, trying to breathe again as a new wave of confusion overwhelmed her vision; her head felt like it was inflated with helium. With an unceremonious turn, Diggory carried Danielle like a porcelain doll through the door, and it was open to the world beyond, and Danielle felt the wind rush on her face, head against Diggory’s chest for support as they bore her into the outdoors.
The world was even brighter, blinding to look at and disorientingly huge. Her dreams were always so narrow in focus, but she got the impression that there was an entire world, expansive and radically alive, stretching out in every direction. Diggory carried her out of the garage where they were parked, and trees and mountains spread in every direction beyond beneath a dim, cloud-filled sky.
“Why are you crying?” Diggory whispered.
“I can’t believe I’m really here,” Danielle said. “It feels like my first day being alive.”
Diggory set her down gently, leaned up against the garage wall. Her feet seemed too far away to be useful, but grass and wet dandelions lined the cracks in the concrete lot, and felt cool and green on her legs. She could make out a road in the distance, stretching on, and trees that shook in the breeze. The voices of others were louder now, and Diggory stepped away from her side, went to knock on a door somewhere out of her view.
“What do you think?” Percy said; a whisper of a boy beside her. “Was it worth leaving?”
“Yeah,” Danielle said, and managed to twitch her foot in the grass. “I definitely thought like, big field full of flowers or something would be my first moments. But a broken driveway outside of a broken garage is… real. It’s real.”
“Hey!” a voice called, a little higher in pitch than she’d expected, but still familiar. “Welcome back to the land of the living! Which is California, apparently.”
A face came into her view as Riot knelt down beside her. She had a vest covered in buttons and studs, and although she was more tired and grimy than her reflection in the dreams, Danielle could see the resemblance.
“Thanks,” Danielle grunted. “Bad news—I can’t walk. Diggory is helping me out a little though.”
“We’re not safe quite yet,” Riot said. “We’ll have to pack up and keep moving soon, because Botco could pretty much show up any minute with more drones. And then we can see if we can help with the walking and get everything sorted out. But before all that, thank you. If you hadn’t reached out in my dreams somehow, I wouldn’t have even known where to go. Or where to start with getting into a Dreaming Box. And I would never have seen my mom again, or I would have been kidnapped forever. So thank you, Danielle. Thank you so much.”
“About that,” Danielle said. “I didn’t want to put like, too much on you during our talks, because I was never sure how much you’d remember. But there’s someone watching you. He told me where to find you, kind of? How to talk to you that way.”
Riot turned pale, and leaned in close. Danielle, what are you doing?
“Is he with Botco?” Riot whispered.
“I don’t think so,” Danielle said. “I really don’t think so.”
Danielle. Change topics. Now.
“What’s his name?” Riot said. “Watching me how?”
Don’t you dare!
“I don’t know about the watching,” Danielle said. “How it works exactly. But his name is Nik.”
Interlude 2 - They Can't Know
Practically three breaths you have had here on this free earth, Danielle, thanks to me I might add. And this is what you use them for. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re putting all of this in jeopardy. Fall asleep. Fall asleep right now so you can hear this.
They can’t know. None of them can know. It’s why I don’t speak in their dreams. It’s why I dance in circles around the Hallowoods and the regions beyond. To know would be to break everything. People never act the same when they know they’re being watched, Danielle—you purveyor of the Prime Dream, peeking in on a thousand private nightmares would know that better than anyone. We are both watchers, you and I, and I expected more confidence from you.
Breathe, Nikignik, breathe. Riot knows a Nik has been watching her mysteriously. That is all she knows. You can work with that. That’s not going to derail anything important. Most likely.
We go now to someone who is dying.
Story 3 - Devils Always Tell The Truth
Polly had made mistakes, and he could recall most of them quite clearly. He’d missed a shipwreck in the 12th century audits and his balances had been off. He’d been reprimanded in front of the entire department for that. He’d been sent on a 19th century mission to track down a runaway ghost, and had been four days late for reasons he didn’t like to dwell on. But now, in the 21st century, he was underwater, and he’d made maybe the biggest mistake of his life.
He relied on breath less than humans did, perhaps, but he tumbled limp in the torrent around him, and could only see shadow. The water was colder than ice, seeping into his wounds and his bones, quenching the fire that burned in his physical form. He was a flaming sword, tossed into the ocean, and he could not even scream, could not get his bearings, could not muster the flame to heal himself. He was burnt out, and all his reservoirs were gone, and he felt like the embers of his mind were growing dim.
He collided with something huge and sharp; a reef of decomposing fast food franchises, blanketed in all the debris of the world, fish scattering in every direction. The water dragged him across the concrete, and he suspected his jacket was quite ruined. A shame, he thought. I’d prefer to die well-dressed.
Something hit him from behind, then, a fist pulling on his shirt collar, and he was rising for a long moment. He could catch glimpses of his savior, if that he could call the man with the fire burning beneath his skin and the hand of briars. It’s alright, Polly wanted to say. I think I’d prefer this to a conversation with you.
He was thrown out of the water onto a rocky shoreline, where he rolled to a stop amidst a host of sharp rocks, and coughed to rid his body’s lungs of the seawater.
“You warped us into the sea, idiot!” a voice Polly would hardly define as threatening growled, as Rick Rounds emerged from the water.
“It’s an ocean, you vacuous cretin,” Polly sputtered, watching Rick step closer. The man was shirtless, and his veins seemed to burn with flame; one eye glowed orange and the other green, and Polly could not move—partially due to his tottering on the verge of life, but also an appropriate horror for the walking mistake he was witnessing.
“You wanna keep running your mouth?” Rick said, coming to stand over him, staring down. His arm of thorny vines contracted and writhed of its own accord.
“I thought I deserved at least a proper auditor,” Polly mused, and sighed. “Who was it that dealt you in? Was it Tiff? It has to have been Tiff. That old reptile.”
A kick landed against Polly’s head, cracked it against the rocks. His vision swam and was all fuzzy. He thought he’d gotten used to pain by now, but this was purely dazzling.
“Alright,” Polly grunted, and tried to sit up as much as he could. A muddy boot came to rest in the center of his good shirt; his jacket was nowhere to be found. “You’re going to kill me, I imagine. Can I ask you to make it quick? I expect there’s a small crowd waiting for my corporal punishment once I make it back…”
The boot clamped down hard, crushed the air from his chest, and he choked. Rick stooped above him, light flickering in his cold blue eyes.
“Kill you?” he said. “Sure. I guess that’s in my job description. But I’m not in a rush. I want it back.”
Polly tried to get any air back, and could not manage more than a gasp. The boot fell back. Polly coughed, and pushed the hair away from his face.
“You want what back? The cane? You destroyed it yourself, you brute. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s empty. All burnt out on that carnival.”
“Not the cane,” Rick said, and stepped instead on Polly’s hand; Polly gave a small shriek, felt all the little parts of his hand come under stress. “I want my hand back. My old life. I want to go back to how it was before it all went south.”
Polly stared up for a moment, and began to laugh, even as the boot ground down harder.
“I would not suggest laughin’ at me right now,” Rick said.
“What do you think this is? A folk tale, mister Rounds?” Polly said, half sobbing from the pain. “That you can walk away from the crossroads at midnight? This is real life. This is your life. And all those things you’ve lost I am certain you deserve to be without. Ah! That hurts…”
“Good,” Rick spat, and licked his lips, and raised his boot heel, prepared to bring it down on Polly’s hand again. “I know how to…”
Rick screamed, then, a bark like an injured dog, and fell against the rocks beside Polly like a bag of overripe potatoes. Rick writhed, clutching at his own heart, eyes sparking bright in two colors. Eventually he came to rest, and lay panting beside Polly, staring up at the sky.
“Do you even know what’s wrong with you?” Polly said, and pulled his broken hand to his chest. He didn’t have the fire to fix it right now; all that he had was burning internally, trying to keep a few coals alive, patch up the worst of the hemorrhaging.
“Shut up,” Rick breathed. His hand of thorns twitched as if playing a melody on some unseen instrument.
“Did he tell you what it will do to you?” Polly continued. “Tiff? He’s notorious with the bargains. Tell me you read the paperwork.”
“What are you talking about?” Rick said, looking over.
“You’re going to die,” Polly said.
“I was already dead,” Rick muttered.
“It would have been smarter to stay that way,” Polly said, and rolled up his sleeve, found a button missing on one side. “Let me try to put this in terms you’ll understand. You’ve been touched by big bad dead god flower poison juice. It’s growing in you like pumpkin seeds. Downside, your soul is worthless now. Plus side, you won’t remember a whole lot when it gets you completely. But I’m guessing you went and made a deal with serious no fashion sense man.”
“Weapon of an angel,” Rick said. “That’s what he gave me.”
“Blood of a devil, more like,” Polly said. “And it would usually just burn you out. But right now, it’s working like a fever against the aforementioned shrubbery, and vice versa. They’re conflicting powers.”
“So I’m safe,” Rick said. “I can handle it.”
“They’re going to tear you apart, you nitwit,” Polly said. Rick sat up, and knelt over him.
“Really?” Rick said, a cold clarity in his eyes. He looked around, as if for something to hold, and clutched a big rock for support. “You’re serious, devil-man? How long do I got?”
“I’m amazed you’re alive right now,” Polly said, watching from where he lay in the debris. “I don’t know how to fix the thorns. Nobody at the Industry does. So that may be a net loss. But you’ll have a little time, and it won’t be painful. Not like the fire. I can take that out of you. You won’t suffer.”
“Mighty generous of you,” Rick said. “Why do you care so much about what happens to me?”
“Because I have a family out there,” Polly said, and felt a little light burn over his forehead. No horns right now he thought. Keep me alive first and foremost. “And I need to get back to them.”
Rick smiled, and Polly frowned. It was not a pleasant sight.
“Yeah. ‘Cause devils always tell the truth, ain’t that right?” Rick grinned. “I bet you do.”
And then he brought the rock down on Polly’s arm, and Polly screamed as the flaming bones cracked apart like fireplace embers.
Outro - Lungs
Lungs. Not really my problem. What I require to sustain myself is in starlight and the gardens of the cosmos, and I require such nourishment very infrequently indeed. Or perhaps I dwell in a different dimension, floating as though on an ocean of energy, and occasionally peer through your eyes, sit like an ill omen among the ravens in the pines. I could contemplate a thousand years on the mechanics of indescribable life and never be able to put it into words your minds made of matter could understand.
You, on the other hand, require very much. Food each day, and water, and every few seconds a breath, and perish lest you forget any of these. These are things I do not miss about having a physical form, which I have taken up rarely. I recommend you look after them, though, and continue to breathe, as long as it takes to get through this.
Keep breathing, dreamer, as will I. Regardless of what the end of our story brings, you will at least not be alone. Until we turn the last page, and breathe no more, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting respitorially for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Housekeeping', 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!