Intro - Deadname
You are given a name, and then you are born. It is among the first words you understand, and when others think of you, it is the first word on their tongues. One day, you realize it does not fit you, it never has, and you change it, but your old name haunts you like a ghost. Your family refuses to use your new name. Later you are lowered into the ground, and your old name is said over and over until it consumes you, and even when it is no longer said, it is written above your resting place. The grave with the wrong name does not welcome you, so you search for a place that will. When you finally reach it, whispers in the wind say your name, and that they love you, and Hello from the Hallowoods.
Right now I’m sitting in a watch tower. It is a desperate thing, made of raw wood and corrugated metal. This whole place is desperate; a patchwork of houses and strangers. Down below, a man writes his name on a clipboard. It is already written on his jacket and on the side of his hearse. The theme of tonight’s episode is Names.
Story 1 - Democracy Is Dead
Walt was tired, and wanted to sleep. He’d been up all night dealing with an intruder on the Baxter property; it looked like one of Mr. Friendly’s victims had fallen into the lake, since its eyes and mouth were stuffed with pine cones. He was going to have to deal with that awful tree rat one of these days. He realized he had completely zoned out of his present conversation.
“Hold up, Violet,” he grunted, jotting down notes on his clipboard, “You lost me at ‘little violin’. A little violin is a fiddle.”
Violet paused, looking him over. “You look like you haven’t slept in a week, Walt. Can I get you a coffee or something?”
Walt pulled a thermos out of his bag. “Coffee would be great, thanks.”
One of Violet’s errand boys—a sandy-haired kid with a few patches on his yellow jacket—took it and went running. Violet and Walt continued to pace the outer wall of the Scoutpost, and she came to a stop near the tallest tower.
“This is where Bern saw him. A girl fell off the platform, and he was after her for god knows what.”
Walt took notes, raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure it’s a ‘he’, now?”
Violet nodded. “And old, too. Bern says he had long white hair, a beard. Might have been wearing glasses.”
“Can I talk to the young woman?” Walt tucked his pencil behind his ear.
“Maybe later, Walt. She’s been in the infirmary since this all happened.”
Walt tucked his clipboard away, and took the thermos from the returning boy. “Welp, I don’t have any solutions for ya right now. It’s possible he’ll target someone else to get his confidence up, and circle back. Stay on the safe side for now, and I’ll check back with you after I do some reading.”
Violet nodded. “Do some sleeping too, while you’re at it.”
Walt smiled wearily, and started past the Scoutpost towards the woods.
“Where you headed, Walt? Your car’s parked the other way.”
Walt waved a hand. “Just visitin’ a friend at Lurch Lake, I’ll be back in a bit.”
The path between the fort and the lake was well travelled, and Walt had no trouble finding it. The leaves still gleamed with morning dew, and the branches were tied back at his advice. The less harm you did to these woods, the better they treated you. He heard the voices muttering before he saw the lake itself, their whispers and lectures and snippets of song. The water shone dark, and white lily flowers blanketed much of the surface.
“Dylan?” Walt called out, taking a seat on a large log at the water’s edge. It reminded him of a dragon’s skull. After a few moments, he tried again. “Democracy?”
“Never lasts long,” a voice whispered a little louder than the rest. “Murders itself. Will Rogers. Never a democracy yet; suicide.”
Walt peered down into the water to see a skull with a crown of flowers. Green sparks of fire burned in its empty sockets, and the skeleton rose from the water to greet him. The lake greenery clung to its bones like a robe, and it stepped onto the shore to sit next to Walt.
“Care for a coffee?” Walt asked. The skeleton said nothing, so Walt poured it into the screw-on cup from his thermos and handed it over. The corpse held it with delicate hands.
“Any news in the lake?” Walt took a sip of his own.
“Warning signs of a recession.” The skeleton sputtered. “Lack of confidence in the market. Fall of the hegemony. Indicators flashing red, signs flashing red.”
“Mmhm. What about that doomsday stuff? You like to talk about that. That red dawn?”
A change came over the skeleton, and it looked at Walt, eyes burning a little brighter. “I like you, Walt. You bring me coffee. But you can’t, can’t run from it, you know? We’re past the end now. Democracy is dead. May the revolution rest in peace. Lay down your arms, and sleep.”
The skeleton’s hands shook, and the cup of coffee fell to the ground. It stood and walked into the lake, stopping to look at Walt a last time, and held out an inviting hand. “The water’s not cold.” For a moment, however brief, Walt considered it, but he shook his head and waved. Walt was tired, but he could not sleep. Not yet. He was a busy man, and there was an Instrumentalist on the loose.
Interlude 1 - Garden Party
This is an announcement for residents of the north and central Hallowoods: Lolgmololg is a garbage name, and I hate it. There is more to that name that humans cannot hear or understand, and all of it is equally terrible. It is a name fit for lake mud, which is fitting because Lolgmololg is a bottom feeder worshipped only by other bottom feeders. If I threw a garden party and had to invite every being in the universe except for one, I would not invite Lolgmololg. You would be welcome at that garden party, dreamer. Yours would be one of the first invitations I sent out. There would be friendly introductions to people you would not later remember, and cold drinks and small sandwiches. We would sit and talk in the warm lamplight until the stars came out, no doubt bedazzling you because you have never really seen stars. Let’s have a garden party when all of this is over. We go now to one who has never been to a party.
Story 2 - Come Crawling Back
Diggory Graves stepped between black spruce trees, accompanied by the ghost in their pocket. The transparent boy drifted through the air next to them, almost one with the fog.
“Diggory,” Percy asked, “do you know where we’re going?”
Diggory stopped, a silhouette in the mist. “Not exactly. I feel that this is the right way, but I do not know why.”
Percy floated up close to them, glass eyes inspecting quizzically. “How much do you remember, really? From before?”
Diggory ran a finger thoughtfully across the stitches on their cheek, and looked off in confusion. “I remember learning the piano—driving a car. An old woman and a sunny afternoon. Scattered things, really, and I feel they belonged to other people. People I used to be, perhaps. I don’t know them, but I want to understand who they were.”
Diggory paused, eyes fixed on the outline of Percy’s face. “I want to understand you too. What do you remember, from before?”
Percy shuddered, and waited a time before responding, eyes fixed on the misty horizon. Diggory regretted asking.
“I haven’t talked about that with anyone, Diggory—so if I seem uncomfortable, it’s because I am. You know for the longest time, I thought my parents were the best in the whole world. When you’re a little kid, they are your whole world. But they hurt me. A lot. You don’t want to know what I’ve been through. But thanks for asking.”
Diggory searched for the words to respond, and was tempted to delve deeper. It was the most Percy had said since the thread in his lips had been cut. Diggory found their hand reaching for Percy’s clear one, but stopped as a low rumble shook the trees. Another soon followed, rattling the soil. Diggory did not know what to expect; in their experience, the wood’s largest creatures moved silently.
Then a series of howls echoed through the trees, and dogs with wild fur and wide eyes came streaming out of the fog. Percy disappeared immediately, becoming one with the mist. Diggory spread their fingers in wicked claws, crouching and growling back. The dogs circled around Diggory, snapping hungrily, and Diggory whirled to face off against whichever hound came closest. They had fought wolves and much worse than wolves, and their sharp black fingers tore through soft flesh so easily. Still, Diggory was uneasy—they could only sew up so much damage with needle and thread.
Diggory watched a pair of burning green eyes light up the fog between the distant trees, and as they looked away a large dog sprung up from behind and toppled them into the soil. Diggory flung the hound away in a flurry of loose dirt, and then the rest of the pack closed in.
A barking chuckle swept across the clearing, shaking the earth like thunder. The dogs backed away from Diggory, cowering. A very large person stepped in from between the dark spruces, fully sixteen feet tall, with smoldering green eyes in sunken sockets. A permanent smile of jagged yellow teeth was fixed on his face, and his body was bloated, as though it had soaked up water until it was ready to burst.
“What does suss-pick-on mean?” He asked, lumbering towards Diggory. The dogs cleared off, circling between the trees, and nosing the air curiously in places.
“What?” Diggory asked, looking up in awe at the second person they had ever met.
The stranger held a small yellow book in confusion, examining a page. “Suss-pick-i-on?”
Diggory stood, and a huge gnarled hand passed the book down carefully, as though handling a sacred artifact. Diggory had read this one before, they felt.
“Suspicion.” Diggory said, as the giant pointed out the passage with a jagged nail. “It means not to trust someone—when you’re not sure they’re telling the truth.”
Diggory handed it back up. “It’s a nice book you have there.”
“Thank you.” The mottled titan beamed, yellow teeth flashing. “It’s above my reading level. I’m Big Mikey.”
“Diggory. Diggory Graves. My friend Percy is around here somewhere.”
Big Mikey glanced across the clearing nervously. “I don’t see anyone.”
“He’s invisible sometimes.”
“Wow.” Big Mikey’s eyes burned bright. “That’s awesome. I wish I was invisible.”
Diggory nodded. One of the dogs barked at the air. Diggory pointed the way Big Mikey had come. “What’s in that direction?”
Big Mikey peered into the woods behind him. “That way’s the Scoutpost. They have books!”
Diggory wasn’t sure why, but they took this as a good sign.
“But,” whispered Big Mikey, stooping down conspiratorially, “there’s also the innermennalist.”
Big Mikey straightened up, rising into the fog. Diggory looked up after him. “The what?”
“The Instermenist. Duh.” Big Mikey opened his book, and kept walking past Diggory. The dogs followed in suit.
“He makes instruments outta people.” Big Mikey hollered matter-of-factly, trampling into the forest beyond. “If you hear music at night, that’s sush-pish-us.”
Marketing - Brands Are The Gods
Welcome back to Botco Marketing Training with Lady Ethel Mallory. Have you ever looked at those more successful than you and thought, “I wish I could be them? I wish I had their beauty, their fame, their talent?” But, you tell yourself, I could never be them. They’ve had privileges that I don’t, they have talent that I don’t, and that has put them forward in life. Deep down, we are all worth the same, and it is fine to be where I am.
You are wrong.
You are worth nothing because you have made yourself worth nothing. You have not developed your personal brand, and in today’s world branding is everything.
A brand is all you have. Define yourself. Capitalize on your differences. Turn your flaws into marketable assets. Show your strengths in the best light—the one that makes others feel inferior. When you have a brand, other nameless insects will worship you. When you smile they burn with envy, and when you walk they bow. A valuable brand is worth a thousand lives. Turn your name into a weapon, and no one in the world can stop you. Brands are the gods that normal people spend their lives groveling for. In this next exercise we will destroy everything you think is unique about yourself and replace your personality with something more marketable.
Story 2, Continued - Come Crawling Back
Dreamers, did you hear that? I cannot find the source of these broadcasts—which is surprising, because I am almost everywhere. This one felt closer, somehow, or louder. I worry about this. I worry for what might be coming to my little forest. We return now to Diggory Graves.
“Percy?” Diggory called, turning between the trees. “Are you there?”
They took the piano key out of their pocket, cupped it in their scarred hands. No ethereal wire glowed from it, and that made Diggory nervous. Percy had been gone briefly, or been rarely visible, but only for short periods. Since he revealed himself, he had never felt far. This time was different, Diggory felt, and realized suddenly how alone they were—just a shadow in a world of shadows, a tall dark shape in a black spruce forest. Diggory stopped in front of a great tree, placing the piano key carefully at its base. They sat facing it, and felt the little black vines of the underbrush curl around them. They closed their eyes, and listened.
“I want to change this line from the ghost track.” Said Valerie, adjusting the guitar in her hands. Sunlight beamed through the skylights of the New York apartment. Diggory was a woman, and she nodded in agreement as Valerie played a new progression. “I like that, yeah.”
Diggory glanced around the books and magazines strewn across the loft, a nest of inspiration. “Do you think it makes a difference?” She asked.
Valerie nodded emphatically. “I think our lives are shaped by art more than we realize. What we read, what we listen to—it makes a difference. Anything we can do to change what’s happening right now is important.”
“Yeah.” Diggory said, looking up. A Botco ad was plastered to the wall, with a model wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. She held a small silver cube in her hand. 'Why work', the poster read, 'when you can dream?'
When Diggory opened their eyes, Percy was sitting against the tree, holding his face in his hands.
“Percy?” Diggory asked, not daring to move closer. “What’s wrong?”
Percy trembled, but did not respond.
“You don’t have to talk about it.” Diggory said. “But I am here. If it makes a difference.”
Percy nodded, and spoke seemingly without intending to. “I thought he was gone.”
“Who?” Diggory did not think Percy meant Big Mikey.
“The Instrumentalist.” Percy breathed. “Whatever he calls himself. That’s my dad.”
Diggory was silent for a moment, not sure how to respond. “I was curious. It did sound like your condition.”
Percy glanced at them from between pale fingers. “You don’t seem surprised.”
Diggory reflected on this. “You are an instrument made out of people. I am a person made out of people. But I have always been this way. I can’t imagine what that’s like for you.”
Percy looked at them with a pained expression.
“My dad made me into this.” Percy growled, slamming his hand down on the piano key, passing through it. “He is the worst person I have ever met, Diggory—I hate him. I hate him.”
“I believe you.” Diggory said, cautiously. “I am sorry.”
Percy rose into the air, electric tears crackling down his cheeks, and his voice broke as he shrieked into the woods. “For once I’m not trapped, and I’m not stuck with people who hate me, and he has to come crawling back into my life?”
Percy’s hands were blazing fires, and with a scream he swung them against the blackened bark of the tree. Diggory jumped back as it splintered, and the shattered trunk toppled into the trees beyond. Percy flickered dim then, falling to sit next to Diggory. Diggory raised an arm around him hesitantly, although it had nothing on which to rest.
“Oh Diggory.” Percy whispered. “When he finds out I destroyed his piano… I don’t know what he’s going to do to me.”
“Nothing.” Diggory said. “I destroyed the piano. If your father has an issue, I will deal with this. I don’t want you to worry about it.”
Diggory noticed Percy’s hand creeping around their waist, and held the ghostly boy throughout the night, until the early hours of the morning.
Interlude 2 - Vault of Memory
Certain names are best not said, or entirely forgotten. When someone adopts a new name, for instance, it does you no harm to lock the old one in a vault of memory. Likewise, when a person fills your life with negativity, when they tear you down and belittle you, when they rise to hurt the ones you love and threaten the things you hold dear, they are best left to the past. I remember him still, sometimes, and I do not mind the memories. There are good moments in a bad childhood and there are sweet memories in a broken relationship. It is sometimes a consequence of growth that old friends are left behind, and a consequence of moving forward that ghosts lurk in the life behind you. We go now to someone familiar with ghosts like these.
Story 3 - I Would Not Be Denied
Olivier walked along the narrow path, trees joining arms overhead to create a lightless tunnel. He felt as if he was crossing the river Styx on an epic journey, or perhaps waiting in a dark auditorium for the red curtains to swing open. Olivier tried not to feel anything, putting away anxiety and fear. Fear killed the mind, he’d once read. He had no intention of approaching his most important assignment ever with less than the perfect clarity instilled in him by Downing Hill, by the Director.
Even so, he held the weather close, lightning and storm just moments away if he required them—and he would not require them, he told himself.
After a final twist in the winding drive, he reached the manor—a haunted mansion peeled from the cover of a cheap paperback novel. The trees rose like a fortress around the house, forming a dense wall that enclosed the estate. The lawn was covered with bizarre sculptures of people, a little larger than life, with strange proportions. They wore red coats with gleaming gold buttons, and were fixed in unnatural poses. Olivier walked the central path serenely, and noticed as he crossed the lawn that their faces were decorated with grotesque stitches. He wondered, without feeling, if they were made of real flesh. The Instrumentalist did have a certain reputation.
A rusty red truck was parked out near the front, a shock of reality in a surreal landscape. Olivier looked back across the silent crowd, and noticed that every face was turned towards him as he stepped up to the porch.
No fear, he thought. No fear.
He reached out, and rang the doorbell. It chimed with a cheerful set of notes, and Olivier could recall the words that went with them. 'When pains of death seized on my soul, unto the lord I cried.' They tolled again, as thudding footsteps grew louder. 'Then Jesus came and made me whole. I would not be denied.'
The door swung open to reveal a man in a red robe, with white hair hanging past his shoulders. His eyes were glassy, as though he had cataracts, but they glinted green in the light.
“Did they send you from the church?” He growled. His face was distinguished, sharp.
“I’m from Downing Hill.” Olivier said, flashing his library card. “I’ve been asked to help you with some business.”
The man glared at him for a moment, as if weighing his worth. He loomed over Olivier like an altar of judgement. “Your hair is colored unnaturally, and you are proud. A man’s pride will bring him low. Are you really a student of the sacred arts? The instruments of creation?”
“Yes sir.” Olivier fixed his bow tie. “You’ll find I’m quite capable.”
The Instrumentalist nodded. “I discussed terms with your Director.”
“I am aware of the terms. First payment is only expected after you have had a chance to test my service.”
A toothy grin, awkward and hungry, spread across the man’s face. “Good. There is a girl whose head is shaved like a man—she cowers like a wounded dog at the den of iniquity they call the Scoutpost. She has something that belongs to me, a key. You’ll bring that to me.”
“Bring her too. A young woman must learn humility and respect.”
Olivier nodded, and the Instrumentalist closed the door.
Olivier turned, and let the figures on the lawn stare at him as he pulled cloud and storm around his body, lifting into the air. No fear, he thought, no feeling. One girl was inconsequential in the grand scheme, and to hold a card at Downing Hill was to hold the fate of the world.
Outro - Names
Names are powerful things. To have one is to have identity and purpose. It puts life in us when others speak it; a little excitement when they whisper. When we are lost we listen for it to be called, when we are alone we miss its sound. No one calls my name, and no one has in a long time, but I hear it in the blackened trees and the cursed waters of these woods, written in their molecules, heartfelt apologies strung between particles. The Hallowoods call my name as they call yours, dreamer. Until you heed them again, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, bidding you pleasant dreams and that you one day return to the Hallowoods.