Content warnings for this episode include: Guns & gun violence, barricading rooms to prevent violence, discussions of genocide, Animal injury & death (Heidi as usual, several Froglins, Frogsticker the giant heron, Froglin Queen), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury (more than usual), Blood (more than usual), Birds, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Religious Violence (Fort Freedom)
Intro - Heavy Head
Heavy is your head, although you wear no crown. When the rains fall, you feel for the first time a blessed nothing, a numbness in your hands and feet as you walk out of the hospital ward and follow the call north. Stars turn around you, and others find their homes in lake beds, but after a life spent lying down, you would not return to sleep so quickly.
You pass lake and spruce and wetland, frighten ravens with your movement, come to the edge of a frigid ocean. In a bank within sight of the shore, there is a singular tree—a small black pine. Will you now sleep, it asks? Or will you be my herald, and help a new world to wake?
You fall to your knees, and stare up at the rain. You know more than anyone the lure of slumber, but you have barely lived—and you know that this is painless. It is holy. It is free. You accept, and feel bitter joy as the rain melts the skin from your face, and a crown of green flame burns brightly upon your head, and the new dawn whispers Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I’m sitting on the back of a queen. She has enjoyed ruling all she sees, which has largely been a single murky pond. But now, she walks from her basin upon the land, each footstep a royal proclamation.
She does not walk because there is a chain caught in the horns on her neck. She walks because it has been whole seasons since she left her pool, and she is oddly enjoying the stretch, and she is curious where the three little creatures ahead of her are going so insistently.
The theme of tonight’s episode is Kingdoms.
Story 1 - A Stroll With The Queen
Hector Mendoza was no stranger to obscene wildlife. He had run from a fox that laughed, and hidden from night-gaunts as tall as the pines. He’d seen things that came crawling back from death and things that didn’t, things that watched and things without faces, and escaped twice from a frog-faced hoard of hunters. But none had met him in a state of such panic, as the gargantuan creature that crashed through the forest behind them.
The froglin queen was the size of a tour bus, with a dozen eyes scattered across her thorny head, staring in all directions. Her largest legs propelled her forward in lurching hops, and her underbelly was covered in smaller arms, still clutching a few glassy eggs, along with various sticks and rocks she had picked up. He was careful to stay ahead of her feet, which he suspected could crush him instantly, and kept a wary eye on her mouth, which was as wide as a dumpster and likely could snap him up without a second’s warning. That said, it surprised him greatly how politely she wandered along behind them, toppling any tree that obstructed her path.
And yet, despite their apparent success, something didn’t sit right. Perhaps he was just irritable because he was smeared in vinegar and the pungent chemicals of fireflies; an attempt to keep her from lapping him up with one shot of her giant tongue.
“Come on, animal,” said Huntington beside him, and pulled the chain further. The shaggy-haired revenant had the queen’s lead wrapped around their bulging, stitched arm, and yanked her forward every few seconds. Hector’s dog stood by his feet, and looked back to stare at the queen with unseeing pale eyes.
“Quite a sight, isn’t she girl?” Hector muttered.
“How much farther would you like to go?” Huntington said, gathering the slack in the chain as the queen lumbered towards them. They wore a vest with only thick black stitches across their chest beneath.
“I don’t understand,” Hector muttered, and closed his eyes for a moment to listen. “They let us go so easily. Why aren’t they following?”
“They are afraid,” said Huntington, stalking forward with the queen in tow. She breathed on Hector with a gigantic snout as she passed; she would have fit right in the dinosaur books of his youth.
“And fear is our ally,” Huntington continued, looking to the forest ahead. “By the time they gain enough courage to come investigate, she will be dead.”
“What?” Hector said, and stopped walking. The gigantic beast behind them held up as well, and grunted in surprise, looking between them with her mismatched eyes.
“There is a weapon in your bag, yes?” Huntington said, shouldering the chain and looking to him. He had trouble reading the expression in the revenant’s dead eyes. “A flintlock with silver bullets.”
“How do you know that?” Hector said.
“I was made to be observant,” said the hunter. “But if you did not bring it for this purpose I will sharpen a branch and drive it through her skull. It will be almost as quick, and, I expect, efficient.”
“We’re not killing her,” said Hector firmly, and gestured to the behemoth. “That would make things worse. You think her… army, followers? The frogs… would respond well to losing their queen?”
“It would be worse for a time, perhaps,” said Huntington. “But they would die out within a generation. With no one to lay eggs, their number would dwindle, and within a season or two trouble us no more. That is the point of this hunt, is it not? To root out an infestation?”
“We don’t know how it works,” Hector said. “As far as we’re concerned maybe another queen would show up, like bees. But if she is the only one, we can’t wipe out an entire species. That’s extinction, Huntington. That’s not what we’re here to do.”
“They seem to be working hard to wipe yours out,” said the dead hunter.
“They want territory, right?” Hector said. “They’re overpopulated, they’re looking for new ponds. If we can just get them to resettle somewhere else, farther from the Scoutpost…”
“Then they will return in a few months,” said the revenant harshly. The queen snorted at their tone, and licked her thousand needle teeth with a tongue like a giant squid’s tentacle. “They break your walls down and kill for fun. What is ten miles to them? What is twenty? They will multiply and they will feed, and if you spare them now you will only be faced with this problem again when their numbers are stronger. We must…”
“Quiet,” said Hector, staring up to the sky.
“I can be silent,” said Huntington, “but you know I speak the truth, Hector Mendoza.”
“It’s not that,” said Hector. “Can you hear that?”
“Yes,” said Huntington, as though it should have been obvious. “The froglin ranks mourn their loss.”
“Not that I’ve spent a lot of time chatting at the bar with them, but I don’t think that’s mourning,” Hector grunted. “That’s the hunting song. Lolgmololg. Lolgmololg. You hear that?”
“They are still far away,” Huntington said, and shrugged. “By the time they arrive it will be too late.”
“They’re not after us,’ Hector said, and a pit of fear opened beneath his ribs then, a fear he never felt for himself. “They’re going for the Scoutpost. And by the sounds of it this is their big push. It’s revenge.”
“Surely they would not do such a thing while missing their queen,” said Huntington. “They are lost without her.”
The queen grinned, and let out a low reverberating grumble, one that shook the floor of the forest.
“They don’t take orders from her,” said Hector, more floating suspicion than theory. “There’s a fish that lives in the lake by their village—big as you can imagine. They feed it live people. Maybe they’re treating it like the queen. If we could take care of that, I bet they’d follow properly.”
He shouldered his bag, and turned from Huntington.
“Where do you think you walk, Hector?” said the revenant, and Hector glanced back. “Our hunt is not yet done. Will you go fish a titan from the lake by yourself? Or change the outcome of a thousand frogs marching against the Scoutpost? You cannot help them either way… but help me kill this beast, and we can make a difference. The only one that matters.”
Hector stared back, furrowed his brows. His fist shook, and Heidi crept up beside him, as dead as the hunter in front of him.
“Take the queen another ten miles south,” he said. “Look for a big enough lake to put her in. Do not kill her. When we’ve taken care of the fish, they’ll follow. And then they’ll be out of our hair.”
“Where will you go?” said Huntington, and grimaced. They clutched the froglin queen’s chain in blade-fingered hands.
“I don’t have to make a difference to the whole Scoutpost,” Hector said. “Just for one man. And I think he’s going to need me.”
He turned, and began to walk quickly the way they had come, and Heidi bounded and leaped beside him. And then, although it was a waste of energy for the length he had to travel, he began to run.
Interlude 1 - Never To Last
It was never going to last. The world, I mean. Somewhere along the line you got the idea that you were going to grow forever, and the engines of your industries would always burn bright, and the human race expand until it filled the earth and the stars beyond.
Certainly, there are others who have managed it. Built ponderous empires in the stars, lined asteroids with their little kingdoms. Put aside their hatred and greed for the sake of building something that spans the universe. But, like candle flames, they have been snuffed by eternity. Look up in the stars and you may even see their skeletons.
Your run has been shorter than I would have hoped. I was just beginning to like you, but within a measly century, it is over. Not in full, not yet, but when you awake surely you must feel it. The hum of new life. The dim light of a red sun. The beginning notes of an ethereal song, rising just as your last stanza goes quiet.
We go now to one who sings in this chorus.
Story 2 - Maybe Someday I'll Be Ancient
It felt like falling—a plummet into nothingness, a rush of green flame and colorless void, a hum like whale song in his ears. How he had languished before—the time spent in the forgotten temple, the search for doorways in desolation, when he could have pulled himself back by simply asking.
But it was necessary, he thought, as the last of the void peeled away, that I spent the time there, because I did not understand then, and now I do.
The sound arrived last. The sight was first, billowing smoke as the embers of the Scoutpost’s fire pit were scattered to the yard, and flashes of gunfire lit up the air. People scattered in all directions, trucks and four-wheelers drove rampant through the Scoutpost courtyard, and the Scoutpost gathered the scant weapons they had and made ready for war.
The smell was next, the ash of the fire and the acrid scent of gunfire.
And then the sound was back, and he could hear screaming voices, the cawing of disturbed birds, and the shriek of a gigantic heron and the responding howl of Big Mikey, and a hunting song from somewhere beyond, growing low on the horizon like thunder.
He looked back to realize that there was a heron almost as tall as the Scoutpost wall looming huge in the smoke, and it tried to skewer Big Mikey with its javelin beak, and Big Mikey fought back with a wild swing. That reminded him, he had just died. He looked down to his feet, and found his corpse lying nearby, hat and coat and all, a hole through his chest and swirling ravens reflected in his pale eyes. He shuddered, but in some ways he was envious—there was an eerie peace on that face that he felt he might never know.
“Ma?” he shouted; he could barely hear himself in the uproar. “Hector?”
The distinctive blast of a shotgun caught his attention, and he ducked out of the way as a body flipped over the walkway a story up and fell into the mud beside him. He looked up to catch sight of his mother’s wispy hair, and the less frightening of Hector’s dogs, and Buck limping behind Zelda as she made her way across the upper ramps.
“Ma, I’m down here!” he called, and waved, but he knew her hearing was as bad as his. He glanced around for alternatives; smoke clouded the inner courtyard, vehicles and people with weapons fading in and out of his sight all around. A rising wind bore the embers of the fire further, crept in the grass and woodwork of their sheltered gardens. He looked for the nearest ramp up to the next level, and went dashing for it, a little closer to the ruined portion of the wall where Big Mikey seized the giant heron’s neck with meaty hands.
There was another opening of fire, several weapons in the crowd, but Big Mikey did not bleed; the wounds opened like black scars in his ripe skin, and he shrieked, pinpoint eyes gleaming in the smoke. The heron in his clutches twisted like a great serpent and raked him with its razor-tipped feet, beat him back with clipped wings, and Big Mikey recoiled out of the Scoutpost into the woods beyond, his dogs leaping and barking around his feet as he moved.
Jonah frowned, and looked away as the roar of an engine caught his attention, and realized that the front end of a truck with rusted spikes hammered into the front was only a few feet away…
“Do you have time now?” said a voice. “Or are you still busy?”
Jonah found himself lying on the obsidian floor of the nowhere valley, and thirty feet away sat a pile of large black rats, heaped into one gigantic, chittering mass which was itself vaguely rat-shaped. The sky above glowed like firefly light, and the stars were distant elegies.
“Really bad time,” Jonah grunted, and sat up—sure enough, he had not simply imagined the gigantic rat-thing. A crown of emerald flame blazed several inches above its cumulative head. “Don’t wait for me, I’ll be a while.”
He reached up, hollow and frantic, and felt for the stars… but his eyes drifted to the rat heap’s crown, and he thought of falling, of a universe that bloomed like the spring, flame that leaped from planet to planet as if carried by the wind, branches or antlers growing entwined in flowers, the whispers of new life inside dead earth. He recognized it all. They were secrets, his secrets.
“What is that?” Jonah whispered, standing in yellow boots on lightless stone. “On your head?”
“It’s my crown,” said the rats. The pile shifted its shape, sat on its back haunches, flexed claws made of the twisted black legs of smaller rodents. “Don’t get any ideas. You’ve already got one.”
Jonah looked up, and took off his wide-brimmed hat; he could barely make out small curls of green flame above his forehead.
“Wouldn’t have noticed,” said Jonah. “Where did that come from?”
“Can’t be a king without a crown,” said the rats. “Rejoice, Jonah Duckworth, for you are become herald of the end.”
The rats were not lying, at least not according to his sense. He opened his mouth to speak, but then thought of Fort Freedom running over his friends at the Scoutpost, and closed it.
“I have to go,” he called to the shifting mass, and reached out to the starlight, the grim power that still radiated from this accursed stone, and formed for himself a doorway…
Jonah stepped into the Scoutpost. What remained of his old body clung to his boots, and a crack of thunder rolled in the distance, and a sharp wind picked up, breathing life into the fire as much as it carried away the smoke. The truck which had struck him a short lifetime ago ran into something and flipped over violently, and came to rest on its roof. The hulking figure it had collided with was Townsend Rhodes, and the stitched-together chauffeur dusted off their sharp hands. Behind them, Stitchery Pins stalked through the smoke, thin as a specter, and drove a handful of needle fingers through the skull of a man with a buzzcut and two rifles strapped to his back.
Jonah realized three things in quick succession in that moment; that they had chosen wisely in allies, and that he missed Hector, and that he had been made the biggest liar in the world when he told his mother she’d be safer at the Scoutpost.
“Stitchery!” he called out. “What’s going on?”
“It would appear negotiations have failed,” the revenant called back, and wiped the blood from their fingers on their waistcoat. “So we will respond in kind.”
He looked up to the railing, but Zelda was nowhere to be seen now, and neither was Buck or Jackie the german shepherd, and Jonah began again towards the ramp.
“Alright, listen up,” a voice echoed from the far side of the courtyard, where a man in combat boots and bandoliers hopped up on the roof of a truck painted haphazardly with stars and stripes. He carried a length of wire in both hands, and it was wrapped around the neck of Virgil Kane, looking red-faced and bloodied. Virgil’s son took refuge beneath the truck, just out of the man’s sight. “This settlement is now property of Fort Freedom! Gather in the yard and lay down your weapons, and we won’t have to kill anyone. Y’all got ten seconds!”
“Listen,” Jonah called through the billowing smoke, and approached with his palms up, stepped closer to the truck. “Let him go. There’s no need for this!”
“Stay back!” the man cried. “Stay back or he di-”
He let go of Virgil, then, and the silver-haired scout fell to his knees, gasping for air. The Fort Freedom soldier looked down in mild surprise, and found the jagged tip of a black spear protruding from his chest. He looked up to Jonah then helplessly, and with a sharp yank was pulled off his feet, outside the destroyed Lurch Lake gate.
Dark clouds had arrived, Jonah realized now, a furious storm approaching in an instant, the likes of which sank fishing vessels. The battle-chant of Lolgmololg was loud in the air, and a crackle of lightning illuminated a hundred glassy eyes in the forest as the froglin warband arrived.
Marketing - Know Your Place
Hello class of the Ivy League Conglomerate 2051 Marketing Program. Congratulations on this wonderful step you’ve taken, not just for your career, but for the futures of all those lovely people you’re going to reach with effective, beautiful, and transcendent advertising.
Many of you have big dreams. Have pet projects. Are influencers and have audiences. You have a love for the art of marketing that is bigger than those classroom walls. You breathe it. It fills your hopes and dreams, because you know it will fuel your success if you master it.
To you, I have one piece of advice as you go forward into a brand-new world of brands…
Know your place.
Don’t let your imagination tell you that you’re going to be a star. Be a national darling. Many have tried, and many have crashed and burned and been sent back to work in their petty announcement roles. This is a kingdom, and there’s only room for one queen. Such astronomical success is one in a million, and it won’t be you.
So don’t risk it. That’s not what you were trained to do, anyway. You are not the king, but the maker of kings. The greats will only reach their phenomenal success because of your invisible hand, guiding the spirit of the nation. That is your reign. That is your power. For you, that is what success must be…
Story 2, Continued - Maybe Someday I'll Be Ancient
Looks like someone’s feeling a little insecure. What are you afraid of? That another Melanie Flores is right there behind you, waiting to outshine your dusty performances? That time has revealed the cracks in your facade, the weaknesses in your shell? Much as you rail against it, the future will replace you, and you are merely teasing out your last moments before you are forgotten entirely.
We return now to Jonah Duckworth.
The rain arrived like a siege weapon, and poured down across the Scoutpost like cannon fire. This, however, was something Jonah was used to. The harpoons came first, whipping out of the blackness to skewer a Fort Freedom soldier, a combat scout, a gardener, pull them into the tangled forest beyond the broken walls. But then the frogs themselves, like a swelling black ocean wave, were leaping and crawling through the ruined gate, sharpened sticks and rusty spikes in their knobbed hands, deathly stillness in their eyes. They grinned with rows of needle teeth, and sang Lolgmololg, Lolgmololg! Another flash of lightning, and Jonah could spot one in the distance, a crown of wet skulls upon his head, a staff of jangling shells raised to the sky. It looked awfully similar to the one who had tried to drown him in their lake earlier that spring.
There was chaos now in every direction. Fort Freedom’s soldiers realized there was another invader all too late as the frogs fell upon them, and bullets flew like the rain itself as they turned against the amphibious horde. Jonah was not sure where Big Mikey was, but beyond the gate the heron shrieked in the wind, and plucked up a froglin with its beak and ate it.
Jonah ran for the ramp, narrowly pulled a yellow boot away as a black spear thunked into the ground at his feet, and he was up into the Scoutpost walkways then.
“Ma?” he called. “Where are you?”
He tried the first door he came to; it was locked. She had to have gone into one of them, or retreated the other way. He stomped up another ramp quickly, arriving at the radio room, where the door flapped open in the wind. A flock of ravens came screaming out of the shadows as he approached, and he ducked, allowed them to soar up and out into the storm above. He poked his head in, and found a blackened skull upon the ground, the wind carried ash in every direction. In the back corner of the room he could see Russell McGowan shaking.
“Russell? You okay?” he called.
“I’m alright! So is Al I think,” Russell called back from the corner.
“Did you see Zelda come this way?” Jonah said.
“We were kind of distracted,” a little ghostly voice echoed in his head. Al still gave him the spooks, although with Zelda taking him everywhere he’d gotten more accustomed.
“Thanks, Al,” he said. “You two get this door closed and keep it closed, alright? I’ll try and help out there.”
Russell nodded, and tugged a chair over towards the door, and closed it.
Jonah turned, and immediately found himself face-to-face with a large froglin, almost five feet tall and as wide. The same one, he realized, with the bone crown, head blanketed in mud and piled skulls. It stared at him with wide eyes for a moment, and seemed almost as frightened as he was.
“You tried to feed me to a fish once,” Jonah said.
The froglin continued to stare at him, and then with a twitch almost as fast as he could blink, brought the staff of shiny rocks and shells into the side of his head.
“Really?” Jonah said, sitting up in a valley of black obsidian. There was only a single rat now, and it sat a few meters away, and looked up at him.
“You might as well just pick one world,” it said, “and stay a while. You seem conflicted.”
“I don’t exactly have a choice,” Jonah said, and took off his hat, looked for wounds on his head or chest and found none. “I’ve died like three times in ten minutes.”
“You come here when you die?” said the rat, scurrying a little closer. Jonah shuddered; they were his least favorite creature to find on a boat, right after bedbugs. “That’s curious.”
“Can I ask why you can talk to me?” said Jonah. “You’re a rat. Or a lot of rats, last time I saw you.”
“I’ve got things to do,” said the rat. “Can’t wait around all day for you to show up. So I left me here. And most animals talk.”
“Yeah, but you’re speaking english without moving your mouth,” said Jonah.
“I am just thinking,” said the rat. “I think you hear it in the way you like best.”
Jonah found it to be true, or at least, the rat believed it.
“Who are you?” Jonah said. “I’ve always been alone here. It feels like I’ve spent years wandering around and I’ve never seen anyone.”
“Must have been boring years,” said the rat, and glanced around, whiskers twitching. “Not too much to see.”
“Not really,” Jonah said, and put his head in his hands. “Just the sky and the empty temple and all that stuff.”
“I do not know if I have a name,” said the rat, and skittered over to sit next to his boot. “Rat. Rat King. That’s fine. I am not here much. Just to get away from time to time. But I saw you and I thought, I should say hello to a new friend.”
“Everyone’s in danger,” Jonah muttered, putting a fist to his mouth. “Right now where I live. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do.”
“There is so much you can do,” said the Rat King, and it put its little claws on the toe of his boot. “You have been chosen by the heart of ages. You will walk beneath emerald stars, at the edge of the forest between life and death. You will watch it spread and grow new saplings, and guide its roots to consume all that remains of the old age.”
“You’re not lying,” Jonah said, “but I have no idea what you’re talking about, little rat.”
“You will learn,” said the rat. “You are protected. You need fear only one enemy.”
“What enemy is that?” Jonah said. “There’s big frog things and guys with guns…”
“Cats,” said the rat. “Cats hate us. Never trust one.”
Jonah stared at the rodent for a moment. Its little sparkling eyes were the same color as the sky. “I wonder if that’s more of a problem for you than it is for me.”
The rat looked down, and seemed confused. “Perhaps. My domain is cosmic. Of secrets and knowledge. The schematics, the unseen ordering. Yours, I think, is the forest. The trees. The blood running through this new world. And the Faceless King for the Northmost, for the sanctuary, for the heart of the world. We three will be keeping each other company a while.”
“I think I’ve met him,” Jonah said. “Something like that. He tore me to pieces.”
The rat shrugged. “I am friendlier than he is.”
“I have to go, mister rat,” Jonah said. “I have to help, if I can.”
He stood up, and reached out his hands, felt the starlight in his blood again.
“I understand,” said the rat, and nodded. “It is temporary, Jonah Duckworth. You will outlive them. You will live to see the new sun rise over their bones. Maybe not today. But you will. Until then, fear nothing, for you are king in the forest.”
Jonah stared, wide-eyed, and tears dripped down his face, caught in his beard, for he knew still that the rat did not lie. And then, with a flash of deathly starlight, he returned.
Maybe someday, he thought. Maybe someday I’ll be ancient, and say goodbye to the whole world, and grow withered beneath a crown of broken souls.
But not for a long time. Not yet. Right now, I fight for today.
Interlude 2 - It Has Its Rhythms
It has its rhythms, dreamers, that heart that beats beneath the black ocean. He was clever like that. He did not just create, but he made things that created, generated and moved of their own accord, iterating again and again into patterns he could never have predicted.
Certain effects, I have to think, were planned. The first storms that beckoned the weary to give up and sleep forever. The growth of the Northmost Woods to defend its resting place, and the way they reflect the forests in which we used to walk. To raise the dead as vassals to destroy the living and hasten the end, and the heralds to oversee the most important aspects of extinction.
But others, I think, he would have been surprised to see. He would have laughed to watch a frog become a lumbering queen, give birth to a countless legion. Or for the antlered beasts of the woods to grow so tall and dark and ravenous. I see flickers of his own art in this last project, although I know it is no longer the artist who paints, merely the brush swinging on a string. It saddens me that he will never see all the beauty he put in motion.
I am not an artist like he was. I rarely have hands, or extrapolating digits with which to sculpt, and when I do they are clumsy compared to him, I know. I could not begin to alter genomes or devise transformative agents. The tomb I built for him in his world is shoddy, obviously, as a result.
But stories, I can do. He liked my stories. And in as much as this one is about you, I suppose, it is also about him.
We go now to one who has already said her last goodbye.
Story 3 - It All Falls Apart
Bern first thought she was on the ocean, which was something she had always feared. The sound of crashing tumult, so far away, and howling wind, and the patter of rain against the windows…
But the rocking quieted as she woke, and she noticed the infirmary door was shut with a chair propped up under the handle, and Mrs. McGowan sat with her shoulder against it. The wind and the rain were right, but the sound from outside was not so much waves as it was screaming and the reverberating cry of froglins at war.
“What’s going on?” she said, and winced as speaking shot a pang down her side.
“We’re under attack,” Mrs. McGowan said, and pushed back her curly red hair, and there was an impact on the other side of the door as someone moved in front of the glass.
“Open up!” a voice shouted.
“Attack from who?” Bern grunted, tried to move, felt excruciating pain radiate through her side and arm. She gasped in shock.
“I don’t know,” said Mrs. McGowan. “The frogs, or Fort Freedom, or a big bird, or Big Mikey, or all of the above…”
She was cut off as the glass pane in the door splintered, and a face half-covered in a bandana was visible on the other side, and a hand reached through the broken glass for the door handle.
The movement set Bern on fire, but she reached down to pull up her crossbow from where it had been placed by her bed, and she let out a shriek as she braced it against her injured chest, pulled back the loading mechanism.
The door flew open, and Mrs. McGowan rolled back as a man in baggy tactical pants and a tanktop painted with a bleached skull leveled a rifle at the room, and began to give them an order.
Bern did not wait, and pulled the trigger with her unwrapped hand. The man wavered in the door for a moment, and collapsed to the floor of the infirmary. Mrs. McGowan snatched up his rifle, and dragged him in, and kicked the door shut.
Bern pulled herself up out of bed, grunted and bit down again as she placed a second arrow in her crossbow and loaded it.
“You shouldn’t be getting up,” said Mrs. McGowan, already applying pressure to the bolt wound through the man’s chest. He gasped in ragged breaths, looked at her in shock.
“Where’s Violet?” Bern said.
“Bern,” Mrs. McGowan warned, fetched tape and tried to stabilize the bolt. The man’s shirt was spattered with his own blood.
Bern said nothing, but tried to hold in a scream as she sat up, and stars swum in her vision. The pain was nearly ecstatic. Mrs. McGowan sighed.
“Last I heard, she was in talks with the kid from Fort Freedom in the office.”
Bern nodded, and stumbled forward, crossbow tucked against her good shoulder. Her other arm was secured against her injured ribs, and her feet were bare as she walked out onto the wet boards of the Scoutpost ramps, makeshift hospital gown immediately drenched. She did not care; she had one mission, and squinted against the rain.
The world was dark and rushing around her, scouts and soldiers and great toads, writhing in one tumultuous landscape like a renaissance painting of hell, illuminated only by the fire embers and the lighting flashing above.
She tried not to lose her focus, because if she did the pain would overwhelm her completely—she only had to get a few doors away, to the office. From the balcony she could see a sight she’d hoped never to lay eyes on again; one of the mendies—Leyland Blooms—peel apart someone with fingers like spades. At least this time their wrath was on her side. And then there was a burst of gunfire, and cotton and sawdust opened in their chest, and they fell like a loose puppet to the wet earth. The soldier behind them, barrel still smoking, fell in turn as Virgil plunged a spear through the man’s neck.
Bern turned away, heart in her throat, and found the office door; she rattled it, but it was locked.
“Let me in!” she called, and leaned against it for support. “Violet, let me in!”
There was a scream from inside, and Bern kicked at the door, pounded with her good hand as much as she could, but the white spots filled her vision again, and she felt like she was tumbling through a current, and she hit the walkway hard, world still spinning. The wind whipped around her and the rain fell heavy, and she looked up to find a short dark shape with pale eyes and a toothy, jagged maw creeping towards her.
Bite me, she thought. It’ll be the last thing you taste.
It stuck its nose in her face, and licked her.
“Easy there, Heidi,” a voice said above her, and suddenly a hand was on her shoulder, and a grim face in the storm above.
“You alright there, Bern?” said Hector.
“Violet’s in there,” Bern groaned, barely able to see through the flashes, barely able to breathe.
“Alright,” she heard him say, and then “stand back!” and with a splintering sound once, twice, the door flew open. She could see Violet, sitting on the floor with her back to the far wall, beyond an overturned table, and Bern tried to rise but could not.
There was another person inside, Mrs. Wicker’s son, Jacob, with a terrified look in his eyes and a rifle pointed at her wife. There was shouting that she could barely hear, as far away as the sea, and the boy trembled, fear in his eyes as Hector barked at him.
No, she thought. Hector. He’s going to do it by accident. He’s going to let that trigger loose without so much as trying. And I’m not ready.
Bern pulled her trigger, and Jacob Wicker fell back and over the destroyed table, screaming at the crossbow bolt buried in his knee. His rifle fell to the floor, flashed loudly, and she could not see what it struck.
She caught Violet’s eye for a moment, tried to tell her silently that everything would be alright, that they were together, that it would always be alright if they were together.
And then the world became strange indeed. All the color left it, and it was only deep shadow, and a singular green light that flickered and burned like a bonfire.
She rolled over on the walkway, too close to the edge, held one of the rail posts for support as she stared out.
A man with tangled grey hair that flew in the wind, and a battered yellow jacket flapping, stood with his yellow boots ten feet up from the Scoutpost courtyard. The wind roared around him like a cape, and a crown of blazing green fire hovered over his head, the same color as the stars that spun in crazy constellations in the sky above. His eyes shone with a radiant light, and every great toad and Fort Freedom soldier and yellow-clad scout turned their faces up to look at him.
“Peace,” he said with a voice like thunder, “be with you.”
Outro - Kingdoms
Kingdoms. It is ironic that they are named so, for they are hardly built by kings. No monarch lays the bricks for their castle, nor do they bring down the trees to build the homes for their village, but they are quick to sit in the throne on high and demand their respect.
But you’re beyond kings now, aren’t you? Like all so-called rulers, a man sits now in a little box far away and thinks he owns the world. But the world does not know him, has not so much as laid eyes upon him in decades. The land does not respond to his call. The trees cannot be bought by silver, or made to serve for a little taste of dream.
Kings are wasting away as the forest rises, and its guardians are planted, and one day they will crush out the last of the kingdoms in their roots. What, then, will remain?
No kings. No queens. Only a world of quiet growth, and a forest that gnaws on the bones of king and commoner alike, and a future that remembers little of the old court.
Until the crown falls from your head, dreamer, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting feudally for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Shot In The Dark', 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!