HFTH - Episode 81 - Fears



Content warnings for this episode include: Graphic knee-related injury, Stabbing, Teeth Falling Out (reference), House Fires, Animal cruelty or animal death (Heidi as usual, the Fisher meets an unpleasant end… again), Suicide (mentioned metaphorically), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood (more than usual), Needles, Birds, Gun Mention, Strangulation/suffocation, Static (including sfx), Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror, Consumption of Inedible Materials (mention)



Intro - Only Your Shadow

You are not afraid of the dark. You are afraid of what lives in the dark, and blends into the shadows so perfectly that it cannot be seen, and stalks unbidden through the forest behind you as you walk. You can hear it rustle in the night, its long limbs picking over the forest floor, staying low to the ground so that you cannot even see it against the stars.


You can almost feel now its gigantic jaws, stretching wide to devour you. Can it smell your fear, you wonder? Does it delight in your agony? You can run no more, and turn back to the darkness, and the moon emerges from the clouds.


There is something there—a hand, outstretched in the silver light, and a shape that looks just the same as you, and your own voice saying Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now, I sit among a collection of glittering items—wallets and pocket watches, doorknobs and diamonds, gold teeth and bone jewelry. Each of their previous owners knew one thought as they were dragged beneath the mire. It can best be described as a sinking feeling. It is a dread now shared by their murderer, who sits amongst their treasures and feels, despite his gills, that he is drowning.


The theme of tonight’s episode is Fears.



Story 1 - The Garden Gate

He should be back by now, Ricou thought. But Ricou had been thinking that for the better part of two weeks, and with each day that passed, the thoughts grew louder. And yet, it was easier, safer to continue that line of insistent denial than to think about any of the logical conclusions.


Ricou reached out to the cabin wall and dragged his claw across the timber, felt the satisfying peel of bark slivers. He should have stayed in the mud, he thought. Ignored that man crossing so loudly across the banks of his lake one murky day. It would have saved him the current torturous moods.


The first possibility was that Nolan would come back, and admit that he was wrong, and Ricou had been right all along, and apologize for how little he seemed to value their relationship. Ricou was quickly losing hope for this.


The second was that Nolan was not coming back because he could not. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps he had fallen off the shuddering peaks, or been stolen by froglinkind, or snatched up by a wandering night-gaunt. They were a long ways away from Barb’s territory, but certainly the demon had a network of highway robbers that would destroy a lone traveler for fun. Regardless of the exact scenario, Nolan might lie very still somewhere, all the body heat drained away from his invisible corpse.


The third option, Ricou felt, was the worst of all. And it was that Nolan was not coming back because he would not. That what Ricou had been the most afraid of had come true, the buried heart in his black swamp of a spirit. Ricou was driven from the world, but perhaps it would accept Nolan. Perhaps Nolan had found a life with no place for a creature of the lake floor in it. A jealous, wretched beast, too tormented by his pride to chase after the man he loved. Yes. The mud was where he belonged.


Ricou looked up to find he had carved deep ruts haphazardly across the cabin walls, and frowned.


“Why couldn’t you be happy,” he growled. “Why couldn’t you just be happy with me.”


There was a knock on the door, then, and Ricou’s world became a blinding rush of sudden joy, rising on his scales like the warmth of the sun. He was at the door in a heartbeat, and swung it open without thought.


“Nolan?” he cried, but he was already realizing that the body was all wrong—heat in a hundred small pieces, piled together in something only vaguely human in stature.


“Birds,” he roared. “Scavenging pests! You made a great mistake in returning here.”


“I have not come to challenge,” cried the demon of Downing Hill Public Library, a cluster of ravens with a heart of brightly beating fire. It raised its hands of clawed talons, watched from a face of writhing beaks and feathers.


“I will grant you a moment to fly before I eat you one cooked bird at a time,” Ricou said, and mustered as much of a threatening presence as he could, raised all his spines and fins, stood to his full height.


“No eating the Omen!” said the Omen. “Only speaking! Hear please my offering.”


The bird-figure stood, gasping with a dozen beaks, waiting for a response from Ricou.


Ricou considered slamming the door, but against his better judgment, flared his nostrils and snarled.


“You have come for Walter Pensive’s books,” he said. “I will not give them to you.”


“Surely there is some price you would be willing to pay,” said the birds. “Pensive is dead. No more books will he check out from Downing Hill. If his collection is not preserved, it will rot in this cabin. Downing Hill has many resources, and can grant good favors.”


“What care you for the legacy of Walter Pensive?” Ricou said, and hated himself for humoring the conversation.


“I care not,” said the Omen. “I am only the messenger. But the Director would have his books for posterity. What do you require, frog?”


“I am not a frog,” Ricou growled. “I am a man.”


“Alright!” croaked the Omen, and stared at him blankly.


“You have nothing I need,” Ricou said.


“This Nolan you speak,” said the Omen after a moment. “Who is he? You wait a long time for him?”


“That is none of your business,” Ricou said, and stepped forward out of the door, flexed a webbed claw. The crowd of birds shuffled a little, reformed a few steps back.


“I am a good tracker,” said the Omen. “Bird or whale, field or dale, spot the dreamer, tell the tale. I can find him for you. Lead him back safe!”


“He is invisible,” said Ricou. “You did not even see him the last time you bothered us.”


The birds were silent for a moment, contemplating with eyes like a couple dozen black marbles. “Bring back Invisible Nolan, and you will give Walter Pensive books?”

“I hope you land in a tar pit,” said Ricou. “But yes. Why not.”


“I will return this Nolan to you!” said the Omen.


“You cannot even see him.”


“I will do it,” cried the birds, and the figure exploded upwards into an unkindness of ravens, and spiraled into the mad skies. Ricou looked out on what was left—the roiling hot springs, and the cold air of high and improbable altitude, and the rocky ground, too barren for more than a few little flowers blooming. Their petals were colors he could not name. And far, far below, a black forest and gleaming lakes that stretched out the horizon.


I could go, he thought. I could give chase. I would be wrong, but perhaps it would not matter when I held him again. Perhaps he could forgive me. Perhaps I could forgive myself. Perhaps I would arrive just in time to rescue him from peril.


Or perhaps, he thought, I would arrive to find that he is fine, and well. That he dines with his new friends, and has grown too large for a life of trinkets and barrens, and his garden grows well, and at its gates he turns Ricou away from the life he has made.


As in so many storms before, Ricou retreated into his hole, and pulled the cabin door closed behind him.



Interlude 1 - Just A Little Disappointing Is All

What are you so afraid of? It’s amazing how many options you have. Take your pick.


You have a fragile mortal body that could fail at the slightest illness. For some of you it was already on its last legs when you got it. You could eat the wrong object or suddenly stop breathing. And everywhere you look are things that could inflict damage—the Hallowoods are home to many ravenous animals, that are hard to kill and stalk you night after night, waiting for their revenge in the greenery outside your home. What is dead often rises these days to have a little snack. Those that do not rise dream of the end that is coming, of an end that is already here.


That is without mentioning that your world is flung blindly, hurtling through the heavens at a colossal rate, full of turning gears and plots and engines you are too small to put out of motion.


Oh. Spiders. Really?


You know that spiders with rare exception mean you no ill will? They are simply alive, like you? A little more perceptive?


No, you do not have to change it. Clowns is not a better fear. There are many less clowns than spiders. Although you have a point—clowns, unlike spiders, do mean you harm.


We go now to one whose fears are coming true.



Story 2 - Be Not Afraid

The voice sent a chill through Hector’s spine—it was so familiar, and yet so impossibly loud and ancient and cold, the boom of a cosmic storm, the weight of turning planets.


“Peace be with you,” said Jonah, and it was not just a sound, but a vibration that shook the boards of the Scoutpost beneath Hector’s wet boots, and shattered window panes, and echoed in the stars that tilted wildly in the sky. “And be not afraid.”


Hector looked back through the green-lit night to find Violet clutching her thigh, where blood pooled black in the folds of her dress. The rifle had gone off when it was dropped, Hector realized, and kicked it across the room, away from the shrieking boy. Jacob Wicker twisted in pain over a broken desk, a crossbow bolt through his ruined knee.


The sound traveled differently around Hector’s head, as though making its way up from the bottom of a ravine. Bern was crawling past him now, arm over arm, trying to reach Violet.


“I almost had him,” Hector said loudly, and beside him, Heidi gave a low bark. “I was talking him down, Bern! Why the hell did you have to go do that?”


Bern did not respond, abandoned her crossbow to put her head and shoulder against her wife, closed her eyes against Violet’s side. A total stillness had descended on the world outside, the sound of Fort Freedom soldiers and Combat Scouts and froglin warriors replaced by the rush of wind from far-off galaxies and the divine terror of Jonah’s voice.


“Lay down your weapons and leave this place,” echoed the voice in Hector’s head. “Return to your homes and live the rest of your remaining days in peace…”


It did not sound like Jonah, Hector thought, but his immediate issue was Violet, who stared up in shock, the emerald light of the stars reflected in her wide old eyes.


“I think I’ve been shot,” she gasped.


“You think right,” Hector said, and pulled off his sweater, and tied the sleeves tightly around her leg, tried to muster some pressure. Violet’s bloodsoaked hand trembled in her wife’s hair.


“Who is that,” Violet whispered, staring out the door. Hector glanced outside; Jonah still hovered in the night sky, a crown of green flame blazing over his head like a bonfire. A haggard king, wretched and resplendent, a billion years old.


“That’s Jonah,” Hector grunted, and yanked the makeshift tourniquet tight. “That’s still Jonah.”


“What is he doing?” Bern grunted, eyes barely open, as broken as the office furniture around her.


“I think he’s trying to fix things,” Hector said, and stood, and turned to the Wicker boy, who stared out the window in shock.


“Is that an angel?” he said quietly.


“An avenging angel, if we’re lucky,” Hector said, and tossed down his equipment bag, and with his machete cut off the leather strap, and looked to the boy. “Hold still. This is going to hurt.”


“Don’t kill me,” the boy said, and screamed as Hector secured the leather belt over the crossbow bolt in his knee.


“Much as I may want to, now’s not the time,” Hector said, drawing the buckle tight. “I’m trying to stop you from bleeding out.”


“Hector,” Bern called. “She’s not saying anything. Hector!”


“Keep as much pressure on that as you can,” Hector said to the wild-eyed boy. “If it feels like it’s going to bite your leg off you’re doing it right.”


Jacob Wicker nodded, as pale as a ghost, and Jonah’s voice shook the timbers of the Scoutpost office. “If you do not leave, may the forest claim you, may its roots reach out like serpents to devour your bones, may your flesh serve as food for the garden of the end…”


“Tell him not to hurt my people,” Jacob said, tried to sit up and could not. “He’s false, is what he is. He ain’t an angel. Devils pretend to be angels sometimes, and that’s who y’all worship…”


“Pearling earrings,” Violet whispered. “I have pearl earrings. Are those enough?”


“Mrs. McGowan’s at the infirmary,” Bern said, and Hector looked back to her. She stared at him with a raw dread, a blank honesty he had never seen from her before. A face Zelda had once made, asking him to look for her son. “She can help. If you can get Violet over there. Please.”


No promises, Hector wanted to say. I only know how to find dead people.


“I’ll do my best,” Hector said. Every moment mattered, he knew, and he hauled Violet up onto his shoulder. She was heavier than he would have thought, and a little taller than him, and his knees threatened to give under the strain. But he held strong, and felt for one of the pouches attached to his belt, and when he thought he had the right one, unbuckled it. It landed in Bern’s outstretched hands with a soft thud.


“There’s a flintlock in there,” he said. “If the kid moves, use it.”


He turned, wavered a little, and carried Violet for the door, only to find Heidi standing in the doorway, looking up with her unseeing eyes. The light flattered her, and stars danced in her vision.


“Stay here, girl,” he grunted. “Watch over Bern. Don’t worry about me. I don’t have far to go.”


He walked out of the office door, Violet in tow. The stars outside had turned into a whirlwind of light, casting the entire world in black and green shadows that flickered like the frames of an old animated feature. Hurricane winds whipped around the Scoutpost, and over a sea of terrified faces, Jonah hovered like god.


Some began to back away, peeling into the darkness beyond the Scoutpost, vanishing into what might have been eternal night, dropped firearms and javelins and bone spears to the soil.


But some, Hector noticed, as he carried Violet those first few steps across the Scoutpost walkways, did not, and he spotted a rifle being raised by a Fort Freedom soldier far behind Jonah.


“Jones!” he shouted, and his voice echoed as if he bellowed into the grand canyon. “Look out!”


There was a flash of a rifle, then, and an explosion of light from the back of Jonah’s head, sparks in a thousand radiant colors, and the entire world shook as if it had suddenly collided with reality. But it was not reality, Hector realized a second later, but the roots of a thousand black pines bursting with sudden and absolute force through the grounds and walls and towers of Scoutpost One.



Marketing - Fear-Based Advertising

Lady Ethel:

Welcome back to Marketing with Lady Ethel Mallory. If you’ve opted for the Brand Representative study line, congratulations on your new cosmetic updates. Now you’re as beautiful as you are in your dreams!


Today let’s talk about fear-based advertising. There are a number of motivations you can use when advertising your product. Some products tell the buyer, ‘you want me because I mean status’. Some say, ‘you want me because I am the most affordable and practical solution’.


And some say, ‘if you don’t buy from me, everyone you have ever cared about will meet a twisted, horrible end, and each of your teeth will fall from your jaws into the garbage disposal, and the gnashing world will break into your home and slash your tires and shatter your windows and light your home on fire and make you watch the flames consume everyone and everything inside. But don’t worry! If you buy from us, none of that will happen. Shh. Stop crying. It’s all over now.’


In this next exercise, we’ll identify your greatest fear, and then build a targeted ad campaign that effectively utilizes…



Story 2, Continued - Be Not Afraid

There is so much to say, dreamer, but the Scoutpost is cracking apart like a fractured bone, with many of the people we follow inside.


We return now to Hector Mendoza.


A kraken, unleashed in the water, tearing through the walls of a pirate ship. An avalanche sliding through a series of cabins. A hungry earthquake pulling a city into its jaws. Hector thought briefly of each of these as the very ground of the Scoutpost ruptured, twisted black roots reaching upwards and shooting through walls, snapping the guard towers like matchsticks, uprooting the great logs that formed the great front gate. Scaffolds and ramps and sheet metal flew through the air, tossed in ever greater arcs by the crawling earth.


Jonah’s crown was the only light now, flame that meant a primordial doom, and he stared up at the sky, mouth open in a wordless scream, starlight pouring from his head and arcing into great antlers and branches. Below him, a sea of people screamed as they tried to escape the rising grasp of the forest, pouring out of the Scoutpost as the walls collapsed. Not all were so lucky; a froglin made a thirty-foot leap and was impaled upon a twisting branch as it landed; a man was pulled directly into the sea of roots as if into quicksand. Hector was not sure whose man it was.


Violet shuddered, and he tore his gaze away from the man he loved. Violet was talkative, and nosy, and had never trusted him, and was about to die in his arms if he didn’t get help. He dashed in quick footsteps, then, his entire body protesting under the strain, as the very walkway began to buckle and split apart.


The infirmary door was cracking open at the behest of a tangle of roots rising beneath the walkways. He kicked it open, and stomped down on a gnarled branch as he did; it slithered back a few inches in response.


“Is that Violet?” a ginger woman said, looking up from a body on the floor. Hector stumbled over to an empty bed, and laid Violet to rest on the blankets, gasped for air as he checked for a pulse in her purple-veined wrists.


“She’s been shot,” Hector said, as Mrs. McGowan hurried around him, gathering supplies. “Come on. Not this. Not now. You’ve got a wife waiting for ya, Missus Keene. Think of her right now. Don’t you dare stop thinking about her.”


He was not sure if she heard him; she stared wide-eyed at the ceiling and breathed the shallowest of breaths, and the light of ages danced across her limp body.


There was a shudder from the walls, a shattering of window panes, and the infirmary’s residents shrieked as glass showered them, and the rising roots of the forest began to crawl through the frames.


“What the hell is happening out there?” Mrs. McGowan said, hunched over Violet.


“Same thing that happened to Solomon’s house,” Hector grunted, and turned for the door. “I’m going to try and stop it.”


He swung the door open again, and stepped out into the cosmic night. The wind had reached a crescendo, and Jonah hovered paralyzed in the sky, the light streaming from his head a million antlers up to the pinpoint stars above.


“Jones,” he called out. “You can stop this!”


There was a titanic lurch, then, a shift of the walkway beneath his feet and the entire Scoutpost wing it was attached to, and Hector had the sudden sensation that he was falling into darkness as rising roots upended the support beams. Hector and walkway and infirmary and office alike fell into a sinking shadow, and Hector tumbled across a surface of coiling bark, felt jagged tears open on his elbows and shoulder as he rolled.


He pulled himself to his feet; what might have been the gardens beyond the Scoutpost were a sea of writhing forest, and Jonah’s emerald light still shone from the blackened ruins of the walls and rooms, a sea of wreckage around him. He thought for a moment he could see a giant heron stalk through the distant pines, vanish into the darkness, but Jonah hung in the air like a crucifix on a cathedral wall.


“I can’t stop it,” said a whisper in his head, as quiet as the world.


“You can,” Hector whispered back. “I know you can. I believe in you. And you need to. Right now.”


“I don’t know how,” Jonah said, and for a moment Hector thought he locked eyes with those distant emerald fires.


The next, Hector was thrown off his feet as what felt like hooked blades carved into his back, and he screamed, and tumbled through the roiling surface of the forest underbelly. He looked up to find a huge black shape crawling towards him, eyes like dinner plates and teeth like needles.


“How the hell are you not dead,” he said, as much to himself as to the Fisher. The animal was shattered, its legs and long-fingered claws twisted by the heat of a surplus grenade, fur blackened with soil and blood and water. And yet it crawled, and Hector felt it stare as he had felt it staring for months every time he turned his back.


He whistled for his dogs, and realized that he was alone, out past the ruins of the wall, with only the starlight to watch over him.


The fisher grinned with a wide mouth of needle teeth, flared its nostrils at the scent of his blood.


The fisher was faster than he was, and was on him in an instant, giant articulated hands tearing paths in his skin, trying to open him up like a cold rabbit. Hector’s arms were soaked with blood, and the fisher smelled like death itself, loomed heavy like a cloud above him.


He plucked the knife from his boot pocket, and plunged it into the creature’s long furred neck. Then he watched with horror as it reached up and wrapped its bony fingers around the handle of the knife, pulled it free, and with a vicious twist of animal cunning, planted it between his ribs.


He could not cry out, could not speak, could not gasp for air, could barely move. It sank its jaws into his shoulder, then, connected with his bones, and he felt a sudden tension jolt through his body, his old spine screaming as it threatened to tear apart.


With a hand he could not feel, he reached down for the gun in his belt, and wrapped his hands around a handle—the wrong weapon, he realized. He needed the heavy tranquilizer pistol, and this was a silver bullet in an antique flintlock.


“This is why I hate this forest,” he grunted, and as the Fisher began to tear him asunder, he yanked the pistol against the animal’s thick fur, and pulled the trigger, and time seemed to slow.


A dull click. Stupid, he realized. He’d been splashing around with the froglin queen a few hours ago, and moisture was hell for a powder gun. You let yourself down, Hector, he thought. You have to take better care of your tools.


He could feel each needle tooth pierce his skin as the Fisher bit down, each bone in his upper chest and shoulder shift and pop as it ripped with tremendous force, and he stared with wide eyes. The Fisher stared back. He felt for the first time what it meant to be prey.


And then it twisted, and he was missing part of his shoulder, and clamped down again, and one of his legs ceased to be part of him below the knee, and then with a wild bat of a clawed hand he was flung twenty feet across the forest floor.


Immediately the sky was screaming, and suddenly all the terrible lights were shining down on him and the Fisher, and he watched with a kind of breathless horror as the sea of crawling roots seized on the Fisher, impaled it through the heart and skull and ribs and limbs, a grotesque tree of death growing through its tattered bones.


Lightning flashed across the sky, and was the sky, and in it was a man with grey hair flying in the wind, a crown of blazing fire, rain streaking around him like forgotten blessings. He looked down at Hector, and Hector was convinced he did not see the bloodstained, broken body, but his spirit.


The lightning ran through Jonah like a crumbling tower. Destruction. Upheaval. A chance to start something new.


“Goodnight, Jones,” Hector breathed, and closed his eyes.


Hector was not sure if Jonah could see him, or really respond, but the roots were gentle as they embraced him, folded his shattered body in their gnarled arms, and knit through his bleeding flesh with tenderness. They were one with Jonah, and one with the world, and he was one with them, and no more breath returned to his blood-filled lungs.



Interlude 2 - The After

Are we afraid to lose a loved one, or are we afraid of the after?


Whatever lived inside of you dies. That joy, that unbridled happiness with which you walked in the world, that wonder for life and the pleasure they brought with their smile, is gone in an instant. Rendered to ash. And yet, you continue to breathe. Now empty. The fire is extinguished, but the clay still moves, breathes without purpose, beats without love.


That is the moment.


But the after is inconspicuous. It is the last thing on your mind. But when the moment has happened, and the embers of their body are scattered to the wind, molecules rendered into nothingness, the beauty that they were reduced to memory, that is when the after begins.


And you must rise, with your dead heart, your empty shell, and stare out at the universe. Search with all your eyes, but you will not find them in it again. And despite that, you must continue to walk and to run. You must eat. You must create art. You must speak although your tongue is sand and dust. You must survive. And you must do all this knowing that you are secretly, inwardly, long gone, rotted away. It would be easier to have died then with them, and at least been true. Been nothing inside and out. But no. The incongruous after carries you on through eternity alone.


I find that the cruelest of the two, dreamer.


We go now to one to thinks of life, of joy in someone else, of a boundless future ahead of them both.



Story 3 - The Door In the Sky

“I’m not going to just explain it,” Brooklyn laughed. “I’m enjoying your… attempts.”


“Attempts?” said Marco, pulling on his shirt. “Ouch. Okay, well. Stonemaiden situation happens. Day one. Freedom movement. Box Aries. That whole thing.”


“Right,” said Brooklyn, and watched Marco gather the pieces of his body armor.


“But then Ralph tips us off that Valerie and Riot are living in a bunker in nowhere, Canada. And when Riot leaves in an RV it shows us how to get in. She’s recovered, and a trap is left there for when Riot makes her way back.”


“This was probably like, in your mission briefing package when you were assigned to our security detail,” Brooklyn said, and rolled her eyes. “You get no credit for this.”


“Shh,” he said. “I’m trying to impress you with my brilliant political mind. Now let’s see. The Lady goes up to oversee the Riot collection thing, and that’s when I meet a certain lovely secretary.”


Here he lifted her leg, gently, and kissed her ankle, and returned it to the bed. Brooklyn smiled, and checked her watch, and frowned.


“Hurry,” she said. “It’s almost time.”


“Right when we almost have Riot, the Lady gets distracted by an old guy with ghosts. And we waste a bunch of time then, trying to get his secret thirteen herbs and spices.”


“Time which the Lady is fine with,” said Brooklyn, “because the more the Prime Dream is under stress, the more power Mr. Botulus will give her to try and fix it. That’s the part that’s crazy to me.”


“Until Mr. Botulus is like, you’re probably never getting her back for me so I’ll just make a Riot Maidstone myself, get Valerie to cooperate that way,” said Marco, and brought the plates of his body armor around his chest. “Can you strap me in?”


Brooklyn sat up, and went about cinching the buckles in Marco’s armor. “Which is where you get put on 24-hour drone duty to watch the real Riot, who gets left up in the forest. Meanwhile the Lady is furious because the other Riot and Valerie are Melanie’s project, and Melanie is young and smart and pretty, and the Lady is very petty.”


“She is,” Marco whispered. Brooklyn fixed her clothes, and gathered what few things she could really call her own. It all fit into a purse, really, a few commemorative pens and a plastic snowglobe with Box Polaris inside of it. She left the clipboard on the bedspread.


“Lady Ethel lets real Riot mess up Box Andromeda and get her mom back because it’ll ruin Melanie’s reputation, so that when she tracks down Other Riot and gets everyone back, she’ll be the one in charge,” Marco concluded. “But for what?”


“Soon,” Brooklyn said, and felt a warm wave of courageous rebellion clear up the terrible anxiety for a moment, “it won’t be our problem, will it?”


Marco grinned, and pulled on his helmet. “No, I guess it won’t. Are you really ready to do this?”


“I am,” Brooklyn said, and held her purse close, and looked around to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything else. “What about you? Your partners? Do they know you’re leaving?”


“I’ve tried to say goodbye,” said Marco, and he looked down at the ground. “They’ll understand once they realize I’m gone.”


“What changed?” Brooklyn said quietly, stepped up to him, touched her face to his chin. “Between when you were a bright-eyed security worker bothering me during the flight and now?”


He kissed her forehead; his stubble was sandpaper.


“I got scared,” he whispered. “Scared for a kind of life I might never get to have. And scared of what we do every day. Scared that I might only ever get to be with you in board rooms and computer bays for the rest of our lives. I want something real. But you’ve changed a lot too. On that flight you were all ‘Lady Ethel is the best’ and ‘I get birthday donuts from Monty’s!’”


“I’ll miss the donuts,” Brooklyn said, and fixed her glasses, and stepped away, made for the door of her little room. “But… I’m scared too. And I feel worse about this job every single day. I can’t be a part of it, knowing what I know. And out of all the places I could be, or the things I could go do instead, I don’t like any of them quite as much as being with you.”


She opened the door, and beckoned with an arm to the sterile hall beyond.


“Please, sir, right this way,” she said.


“Stop with the customer service voice,” he laughed, although she knew that the events of the next few minutes weighed on him as much as they did on her. The elevator to the deck level came quickly, and a small silver cube was set in the elevator wall, a single red eye blinking.


“Boxy,” Marco said to it as they rose. “Disable roof defense grid for Dreaming Box Cassiopeia. Ten minute security override; emergency measure Stargazer.”


“Oh! You’ve tried to initiate a defense grid program that requires security identification,” said the little silver cube, eye flashing.


“Marco Torres,” said Marco.


“Roof defense grid disabled,” said the cube, and the elevator doors swung open, and they stepped onto the great silver desert that was the roof of Box Cassiopeia. In the distance, somewhere over the rolling cliffs and mountains, there was the buzz of a helicopter—in the other direction, the ocean gleamed white in the sunlight.


“Any minute now,” Marco said, and held her hand as he began to walk towards the edge of the Dreaming Box. The buzzing shifted directions a little, she thought, and was not the far-off thrum of helicopter rotors so much as it was a screaming vibration…


Marco shrieked as a large black shape knocked him to the surface of Box Cassiopeia; a huge fly with wings glistening like swords and eyes a thousand shades of blood.


“Marco!” she screamed, and looked up as the second fly sailed past her, descended on Marco as well, and both of them buzzed against him, looking for purchase in his body armor with their hooked mouths.


“Go!” he shouted, and Brooklyn was aware of several large shapes moving at once—on the distant edge of the Dreaming Box, a helicopter approaching, what might once have been Botco black painted over with splattered red paint. Behind her, however, a gigantic red shape was beginning to rise from the elevator platforms of the roof, and a wide-brimmed hat blotted out the sunlight.


“Fancy seeing you two out for a stroll,” said Lady Ethel, and she began to glide towards them, barely a footstep visible in the long train of her red coat.


“Marco, get up,” Brooklyn cried, and ran towards him, kicked at one of the gargantuan flies. It buzzed back off into the air, and Marco tried to seize the other one with his hands, keep its reflective head from drawing too close to his neck.


“Go,” he shouted. “What are you waiting for? Go!”


The helicopter hovered at the edge now, a side door open, a gateway to a new life.


“Brooklyn,” Lady Ethel said; she had almost reached them both now, and there was no kindness in her wide smile. “Trust me, my dear. You don’t want what he’s sold you. Are you really about to throw everything in your life away for this worm of a man?”


Brooklyn backed away in lurching, desperate footsteps, away from Marco and the flies as the Lady drew nearer. The Lady stopped, and waved the train of her coat across Marco’s body; when the fur and velvet passed, he was plastered to the surface of the Dreaming Box with a thick tangle of black veiny cord. Brooklyn could barely register it as the strangest thing right now.


“Let him go,” she whispered. “Please let him go. We’ve been lying for so long. Help me fix this. Help me make it right.”


“Brooklyn, go right now,” Marco said. “I’ll be alright. Get out of here while you can!”


“Brooklyn, I’m going to give you one last chance,” the Lady sighed, and Marco could not move now as one huge fly picked its way across the web, became itself somewhat trapped against the thick black fibers. “You can go die in the wasteland. Or you can stay, and very soon you will be the most powerful person in this company besides myself. All that hard work is going to pay off. Whatever he has promised you, it won’t be worth that much.”


Brooklyn hovered, like the helicopter itself, paralyzed by the choice. Marco stared at her, waiting for her to run, and a trace of blood spattered his shiny black armor. She stared back. I’ll be back for you, she wanted to say. You know that, right? I will be.


“I know you too well, Ethel,” Brooklyn called back. “And you smile when you lie.”


And then she ran, faster than anything, for the helicopter, and tried not to break down crying until she was safely through the door and into the morning sky.




Outro - Fears

Fears. So often the case for your kind, and the…


This is not easy.


For you, I am sure, to dream of. But know that it is not easy for me, either, to dictate these stories to you.


It should be. After all, I am not a part of this story. I am simply here to share it with a dreaming universe. It does not truly affect me, in the end, what happens to these little people on this singular dust mote of a planet. Your lives will all be over so quickly, anyway, as though you never existed at all. So it shouldn’t matter. Shouldn’t trouble an eternal watcher, who has seen a thousand worlds end across the cosmos before.


And yet, I am afraid. For those we dream of. And for you. I thought it would go better than this, dreamer. I am afraid it may get worse. This is not the story I wanted for you to dream.


Nevertheless, I will continue, in the hope that it will get better, somehow. That these vestiges of darkness will melt in the light of some new sun. That there is still a reason to fight.


Until you are no longer afraid, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting trepidatiously for your return to the Hallowoods.





The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Not Apart', 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!