Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Heidi and Bert as usual), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Consumption of Inedible Materials (that material being Barb), Smoking, Religious Violence
Intro - The Light That Burns
It is already beneath your skin, and you are not sure whether to be thrilled or terrified. A lifetime you have spent in grey shadow as a grinding unnoticed thing, but no one would dare ignore you now. They cannot look away, and neither can you. What will this change mean? What will happen now that you have taken your newfound crown and worn it proudly, let them see you for all your colors, embrace the light that burns in your blood?
Whether it will bring you fear, or respect, persecution or admiration, at least you are free—you hide no longer, live in fear of yourself no more, and all that is to come you will face in the light of your own truth, and lies flee from your presence. The stars in your eyes reflect the cosmos above a faraway tomb, the crown above your head is a gift from a long-dead god, and when you lift your hand to the world and bid it rise, the forest responds in holy chorus: hello from the Hallowoods.
Right now, I stand over a sea of roots. The forest recovers from the violence of the previous night, and is ready to listen to reason. Roots writhe and shift, pull bodies to the surface, push husks of rooms and towers up from the earth. But for the one who calls, there is still one body beneath the soil. The theme of tonight’s episode is Royalties.
Story 1 - A Sweeter Goodbye
Hector had never woken up quite like this before. Usually his day began early, with the dogs rustling him awake with a request for walks and breakfast. He’d be up and out of his bedroll in seconds, scratching his beard in the cold morning air and getting back to the urgent schedule of survival.
This was a different kind of waking up. It was as slow and gentle as the growth of a forest, stretching as the sun rises to cast warm light over dark needles. Consciousness seeped into his body like rain into ancient roots, and in the time it took to open his eyes trees might have grown new rings to fend against the passing frosts.
In short, he felt well-rested.
He winced as his vision returned ever so slightly, and light shone from darkness above, and he breathed deeply of the dawn.
The first thing he recognized was Jonah, sitting on an upturned trunk beside him. Jonah had his elbows on his knees, and looked to Hector expectantly, and laughed in relief as Hector tried to sit up. Heidi and Jackie sat on either side of Jonah, and somewhere further away, Hector could hear a clamor of voices.
“Jones?” Hector breathed. “What’s going on?”
“Easy, Hec,” Jonah said, and raised a palm. “I want to just hug you to death, but I don’t know how fragile you are right now.”
“Speaking of death,” said Hector, and nodded as his dogs approached, rasping tongues on his face. “I thought… wait now…”
He looked down, and found himself the subject of a few significant unpleasantries. It wasn’t as though he’d never seen bodies dead or overgrown before—old Jeffery Stewart had been graced by the bog, and his salvage corpses were rarely without their odd twigs or vines or flowers.
But these were different. There were dark lines beneath the skin of his left hand, like black roots grown throughout his arm. Beneath the torn remains of his sweater, his shoulder had changed in texture entirely—jagged black bark broke the skin, stretched off into his ribs and up his neck, filled in the marks the Fisher had left him. And one leg from the knee down was all black bark, angled surfaces in a crude imitation of human muscle.
“Jones,” he said, and closed his eyes, turned his face to the sky. “Please tell me something that will help me make sense of all this. Because I’m struggling to maintain my peaceable attitude.”
“I’ll do my best,” Jonah said, and took his good hand. “There’s a lot going on, and I don’t understand everything yet…”
“Let’s start with the part where you were floating,” Hector breathed, eyes closed. He could feel the odd surfaces beneath his skin when he flexed his hand.
“Right. I… unlocked something. Crossed a threshold, maybe. There was someone in the other place, for the first time, and they… told me what I am. I understand a little more, now. And I tried to use that. Maybe too early. But everyone was in so much danger and I thought…”
“I don’t blame you,” said Hector, and squeezed Jonah’s hand. He opened an eye, found Jonah almost weeping. He gave Jonah a slight nod. “I don’t. You wanted to help, I get that. Then you got shot?”
“I guess usually it would have killed me,” said Jonah, rubbing his neck. “But it barely stings. I should be dead. But everything I had, everything I was calling on, I… I lost it there. Just white-hot pain, and visions. Things I can’t make sense of. But when it calmed down, the forest had eaten it all. Scoutpost and Froglins and Fort Freedom and our friends and the Fisher and… you.”
“I should have been more careful,” Hector said. “I kept hearing it in the trees. The Fisher. My guard’s been down an awful lot lately.”
“I’m sorry,” Jonah said. “Maybe we should have left, before it was too late. Gone somewhere warm. Maybe you were right.”
“Hold on,” Hector said, and without thinking raised his overgrown hand. He shuddered to see it. “So what is this? This is real, right? Why’s the forest doing this?”
“Not because it wants to,” Jonah said. “It’s hungry by nature. It would just as soon consume or change or kill. But it’s keeping you alive, Hec, and it’s doing it because I’m telling it to. And if you don’t want it, I… I’ll respect that. But I don’t know if I can do this without you.”
Hector nodded, looked down to take stock. There was a scrape of shifting wood when he turned his wrist, and the splinters jutting from the back of his hand would make a glove difficult. The leg was a bit thin, perhaps, but a pair of less ripped pants would cover it fine. He pulled open the unraveling fabric of his sweater, felt the border where the wooden surface grew into his chest.
“How long does it last?” he said. “This, I’d bet, is replacing broken ribs. Perforated lungs. This is life support.”
“I don’t know,” Jonah said quietly. “I’ve never done this before. Maybe it’s a few months, or… maybe it’s centuries. That’s another thing, Hector. It’s all just confirming things I’ve been feeling in my gut already. But I’m going to live a long time. I don’t know yet if it’s allowed, or even possible, but maybe this way you can stay with me.”
Hector sat up, folded his overgrown hand in his hand of flesh, stared down at his dogs. He understood something in Heidi’s pale eyes that he had not before. They were the same kind of thing now, he thought. Alive beyond their time.
“This is a lot to think about, Jones,” he said, and looked up. “But for the record, thanks. If I ever have to part ways with you, I’d care for a sweeter goodbye.”
“Me too,” Jonah said, and sat forward, rested his head against Hector’s shoulder. “I’m scared, Hec. It’s all getting so strange. I’m starting to worry I'll turn around and find a hundred years are gone, and everyone with them.”
“Easy there,” Hector said, and tentatively put his hand of bark on Jonah’s head—it was strange to see the way the darkness moved beneath his skin. “If I see you spacing out, I’ll bring you right back.”
Jonah tilted his head a little—the ruins of the Scoutpost were beside them, broken boards and sheet metal, the great beam of the front gates, fallen lookout towers, shattered greenhouse panels and torn flags. Survivors of all kinds gathered in crowds or tended to the injured.
“I ruined everything,” Jonah said. “I wasn’t trying to. All this destruction, it was… just an accident.”
“Now this may be a stretch,” Hector said. “But what you’re doing for me…”
He pulled Jonah’s hand to his forested chest.
“Can you do that for the Scoutpost?”
Jonah looked up at him, eyes wide, and over to the ruins.
“I don’t know,” he said. “What if I hurt people again?”
“Jones,” Hector said. “You saved my life, in a lot of ways. I know it’s frightening, all of this. I know it scares you like it scares me. But that doesn’t change the fact that I believe in you. And I think you can fix this.”
Jonah kissed him on the forehead a long moment, and then rose, turned towards the desolation and raised his hands; a lord greeting his court. There was a flash of green flame over his head, a burning crown, and the roots holding the remains of the Scoutpost began to seethe like boiling water.
They rose then, fingers like a gigantic claw, shifting the earth and forest as the wreckage was carried upwards in new, twisting structures, the forest formed into new walls, scaling ever higher over the heads of the crowd. Hector watched in awe, put a hand on Heidi’s head, scratched her fur with the rough texture of his broken palm.
If I was going to leave, I shoulda done it, Hector thought. This place has its hooks in me now. One thing changes, and another, and another, and pretty soon nothing is ever what it was before. He could not resist a smile, though, as Jonah looked back and laughed in breathless exhilaration, and a new Scoutpost rose from the earth.
Well, Hector thought. Here’s to a new age.
Interlude 1 - Open For Business
Attention to tourists, wandering salespeople, travelers bound for other places, market profiteers, regional terrors, and anyone else intending to visit Scoutpost One. It has been closed for business permanently. However, you will find its legacy continued by Scoutpost Two, which is opening its doors for the first time. Scoutpost Two can be found in exactly the same place where Scoutpost One was located—the last stop on the right on the Northern Artery, before the Shuddering Peaks.
In other recent events, the area surrounding Scoutpost Two has gone from a red level Froglin alert to a green level, due to several factors—a quantity of them are no longer alive, and internal political issues destabilize their assault on the forest, and the presence of a very large and deadly heron now residing at Lurch Lake.
However, as always, stay wary, for there is no telling what wanders in the woods. We go now to a ravenous hunter.
Story 2 - Faster Than The Fire
It is one thing to fight when you are hungry, and have been walking for months, and have just been dropped off of a very tall ferris wheel onto a beach of sharp metal debris. Someone sufficiently strong could get in a few traumatic hits before you had stopped seeing stars, snare you in toxic thorns like a suffocating rabbit.
It is quite another to fight when you are rested, and fed on the heart of a demon, however wretched, and know that your family is in danger. Smells become vibrant and intoxicating. Heartbeats are a rhythm of dance begging to be stopped, and the sun smiles on you like a righteous guardian, and a thousand suns run in your blood like wildfire through a dry forest.
And so Yaretzi ran faster than she could ever remember, and the miles were closed in a matter of breaths. A single demon’s faint heart still beat on the horizon, and despite everything she had been taught, she could not allow it to go out. She would have time to mourn for Barb. To express her regret to the Countess, who would no doubt come for her. To think about what a second chance meant.
But right now, it was time for Rick Rounds to suffer.
She was on them in a moment. The ruins of a great copper woman were half-submerged in the black waves, and in her broken shadow were three figures.
The first was Apollyon, bleeding on the beach, and she had never seen him quite so desperate—his jacket was missing, his hand severed, and a metal hook impaled him through the shoulder. Above him stood Mort, cherry red and gigantic as always, swinging his huge metal claw in what might have been a deadly slash, if not for the speed of Rick Rounds. Rick’s eyes burned with lights in orange and emerald; one of his arms was formed of twisted vines, and the other blazed with flame—the same fire that billowed and curled beneath his skin, lit him up like one of Polly’s cigarettes.
Rick landed an uppercut into Mort’s metal chest, scraped four paths in the paint with his thorny knuckles. Mort stumbled back a step, and Yaretzi was upon them then, gave a final leap and stretched out her great black claws. Hello, she thought. Die.
She felt them sink into Rick’s shoulder and back, dug into his skin as her momentum carried him off his feet, and he rolled with her in the rubble. He was far heavier than she expected, but she pinned him down immediately with one paw as he struggled to rise, and lunged with wolven jaws.
“Fancy seein’ you again!” he grunted—something was in her way; his hand of thorns, she realized, becoming oaken and heavy as she gnawed against it, kept her jaws from closing. She switched gears, and with her other paw sent him skidding through the rubble. Rick rolled to his feet, and glared at her as the burning light beneath his skin shone from his wounds. He opened his mouth to speak, but was silenced immediately by Mort’s claw swinging down from above him.
“Yaretzi!” Mort said. “You woke up!”
Yaretzi bared her teeth; a smile for Mort, a threat for the little man who was wrestling with the magnitude of Mort’s claw. Rick’s wolf-chewed arm seemed to grow in size, mustering muscle and vine to contest Mort’s massive manipulator.
Yaretzi closed the distance in a few paces, and as Rick shoved Mort back with a mighty push, she snapped at his head. Rick roared, and reached out with his burning hand, and pulled a sword out of the air—a long weapon with a blade of white flame and a crossguard of wings. He swung it wildly in Yaretzi’s direction; she dodged the arc but it was enough time for him to wheel around and attack Mort—sent sparkes flashing off his metal chest, and Mort backed away a few feet in surprise. Yaretzi snorted, and sunk her teeth into Rick’s shoulder.
Rick screamed, but she bit deeper, felt her teeth crunch against his bones. His skin flashed and burned like a demon’s, but the taste was rich, human.
“It’s too late,” he called, straining against her jaws. “The devil-man’s dyin’!”
A pang of concern broke through the wall of rage in Yaretzi’s mind—she loosened her grip, turned to see if any light still burned in Apollyon. Polly was there on the beach, pallid but alive, looking up to her.
“Look out!” Polly called, and Yaretzi glanced back to find a flaming sword skewing towards her eye. She twisted, and it slashed across her muzzle instead, seared flesh and fur. She growled, and pawed at her face; the wounds felt like they were on fire.
“You like that?” Rick said, and whirled around to swing his blade at Mort. They were clumsy, brutish movements, as if swinging a tree branch, but the blade arced across Mort’s chest, scarred the metal and steel, and Mort shouted in alarm.
“Don’t you hurt him,” Yaretzi roared, and lunged for Rick, who lifted a hand of vines in her direction, and his fingers split into long daggers moving of their own accord. She pawed away the first two vines, bit into a third, and the fourth and fifth wrapped around her neck, full of barbed thorns.
Mort tried to get ahold of Rick, missed a wild blow with his gauntlet, and Rick twirled the sword with his remaining hand, and drove it straight into Mort’s chest, where the seam of a hatch met the metal. The flaming sword disappeared for a moment, sparking like a welding torch, made metal to bubble. Mort gave a shuddering cry, and fell back and off his feet. The hatch in his chest was warped open, and black water spurted into the air from inside.
“I’ve hunted the devil to the ends of the earth,” Rick cried, and turned back to Yaretzi as she clawed through the vines that held her, swiped at him again. “I won’t be stopped by some tin can monstrosity and his pet dog!”
Rick dodged her claw, and leapt into the air. Fire sparked at his heels, held him aloft, and his skin burned like lava, and with a wave of his flaming hand, the air behind him was filled with a hundred flaming weapons, each burning with their own light.
Rick screamed, and as Yaretzi reared up on the beach, he brought an armory of heavenly blades arcing towards the earth, ready to kill a wolf…
Marketing - Licensing Agreements
Over the last many months, there has been a thoughtful conversation among our content teams regarding Botco’s decision to temporarily restrict access to the Stonemaiden musical catalogue, to attempt to keep these songs free of association with the Stonemaids political movement.
However, after careful deliberation, the decision has been made to return this music to access for Botco’s Happy Dreaming Family. With the Stonemaids movement over, we are entering a new chapter for the Prime Dream and everyone who lives in it. A chapter where we must ask, now that we have overcome this challenge together, what changes do we wish to see for our future? What can we do to prevent such a crisis again? What does our Prime Dream look like in the wake of this movement?
I am proud to be working with Valerie Maidstone herself in creating new campaigns around the importance of expressing your individuality and fighting for change the right way…
Story 2, Continued - Faster Than The Fire
In recent news, local marketing professional discovers that she can now turn a profit on product previously deemed controversial. Truly shocking.
We return now to Yaretzi.
One great metal revenant, lying on his back, trying to hold the water in his chest.
Two lights in Rick Rounds’ eyes—one the fire of hell itself, one the emerald green of a new age, burning together in one tormented frame.
One hundred flaming weapons, flying towards her like javelins.
But I, Yaretzi thought, am no animal for the hunt. I am a chosen warrior. A priest of blood. I am kissed by the gods. I am a guardian of a thousand suns. My blood is gold and my eyes are starlight. I am the hunter. I am death. I am Yaretzi.
And I am faster than any fire.
She kicked off the beach of rubble, twisted to avoid the first blade as it sailed past, and the rest came flying down behind her, barely singed her fur as she lunged forward, watched Rick’s face turn from victory to horror as she reached out with one great claw.
His arm of thorns raised too late, and in the wrong direction—left him exposed as the second claw swept into his flesh, where the roots burrowed into his chest, and everything was very fast then as she tackled him out of the air, and dozens of flaming weapons came thudding into the beach behind her. She slammed him down against the shore, impaled his arm of vines with a jutting iron bar.
“Stay down,” she growled, grew as large as she could, pressed her weight down to crush him. The light in his eyes sparked oddly.
“I don’t back down,” he spat, blood in his teeth. “I’m Rick Rounds. I’m chosen by the angel, and I’m gonna…”
What he might have said went unfinished, because Mort was behind him then, clutching his chest with his gauntlet. With his great claw hand, though, he reached out, and with a decisive snap cut Rick’s arm of thorns in half.
Rick shrieked, and the light beneath his skin flashed, and he twisted against Yaretzi’s claws, body spasming as he screamed to the sky.
She watched for a moment, and although the shrieking quieted, his movements did not. His wounds burned like candle flames, and his eyes sputtered like electric lights.
“Yaretzi?” Mort said, still holding the broken hatch in his chest shut, water pouring through his metal hand. The glass dome of his head was only half full, skull bobbing low on the surface. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“Lie down, Mort,” she growled. “You’re losing water.”
As Mort shifted, she lifted a paw from Rick, who continued to stare at the sky. She stalked over to Apollyon, who was as pale and washed up as any other corpse on the beach. She allowed the wolf to peel back a little, give her an upright stance, and picked him up in her hairy arms.
“I’ll say, I’m quite pleased to see you alive,” Polly said with a weary smile.
“As am I,” said Yaretzi, depositing him near where Mort and Rick Rounds lay. She sat against a ledge of warped metal, and looked down at Rick, who grunted as his body seized.
“What is happening to him?” she whispered to Polly.
“Putting fire in a human is a terrible idea by itself,” Polly sniffed. “But especially when that human’s already a flower bed for the garden. Mort, are you alright?”
“Polly,” Mort said, and sat up again. “You’re okay!”
“I’ll live,” Polly said, and then frowned as the hatch in Mort’s chest burst open, and black water cascaded out onto the beach, carrying with it a human skeleton and a skull with burning green eyes.
“Ew,” Polly said. “Mort, I think those things are supposed to stay in you.”
“I think so too,” said the skull, as the empty red shell collapsed back against the beach.
“We will have to repair his suit,” Yaretzi sighed, the effort catching up with her. She could still taste the bitterness of befouled demon blood in the back of her throat.
“Please,” said Mort’s skull, and his green eyes glanced around a little. “Polly? Yaretzi? Are these bones… who I was? Before I was Mort?”
“Probably,” said Polly, cradling the stump of his hand. “Mort, whatever you remember, even if just in your dreams… it counts, it certainly does. But as Mort, you should be very proud of what you did today. Good job.”
Mort might have smiled, were he not a skull. Yaretzi looked down to Rick, who lay mostly still now, light flashing beneath his skin.
“What do we do with him?” she growled. “If I am to kill him I would prefer he be conscious.”
“Rick? Rick, you idiot,” Polly said, leaning close and tapping his jaw. “That fire in you, it’s going to burn you out. Are you going to let me take it out or not?”
“What’s to say,” Rick gasped between flashes, “that you ain’t lyin’? That you won’t just kill me?”
“Nothing,” said Polly. “The question is, is this how you want to die?”
“If I kill you, Rick Rounds,” Yaretzi growled, stared down at the wretched heap of a man, “I will at least be quick.”
Rick glanced up at the two of them, and breathed out, and nodded. “Tell me what I got to do.”
Polly reached out with his remaining hand, and took Rick’s human one.
“It’s like breathing,” Polly said. “All that fire in your bones. Let it go.”
Rick exhaled, blood-drenched and shallow, and the light beneath his skin coalesced, flowed upwards through the veins of his arm, lit up in Polly’s fingertips. Polly breathed a sigh of relief, and Yaretzi noted as Polly’s wounds grew bright, and the hook through his shoulder fell away in two melted pieces, and twin horns of flame blazed bright over his head.
“That’s better,” Polly sighed, and Rick Rounds laid back against the beach, no fire in his eyes now, no light beneath his skin. He was bleeding, black stains across his shoulder and chest that trailed down into the beach. Bert the seagull came flying from the sky to perch on Mort’s skull, and stared hungrily at Rick.
“I knew this day would show up,” Rick wheezed. “I never paid much mind to church. But I’m a sinner, I guess, through and through. I done things, I know. I ain’t holy. And I knew the devil would catch up with me one day. I thought maybe I could outrun him. That if I killed him I’d be free. But the angel lied. The angel lied.”
“There were never any angels,” said Polly, pushing his hair back. “No devils judging you. No sins to account for. You invented that, you know. And this isn’t about anything you’ve done. This is about the fact that you’ve been a horrendous nuisance to me, and you’ve hurt my family. My kind, we’re born in a furnace to collect souls and do paperwork. It was never about right and wrong. And it was never about you.”
Rick stared up at Polly, seemed on the verge of tears, and his half-arm of vines writhed of its own accord. Then, suddenly, his eyes rolled back, and Yaretzi flexed her claws as Rick sat up straight, turned to look at Polly—there was someone else entirely behind the flesh of his face, someone Yaretzi had killed before.
“Hello Apollyon,” said Rick, said Typhon the Terrible. “You and I need to discuss your employment.”
Interlude 2 - No Monarchies
There is royalty in space. Your world has a few surviving monarchs, and distant asteroids and catacomb moons still hold old rulers, clinging to life out of jealousy for their fallen kingdoms. But among life indescribable, you will find no monarchies. Mostly because once our domains are established, it is unwise to trespass. My mentor was kind enough to induct me into the realm of dream, open my eyes to a new layer of thought and existence.
But were I to go and say, ‘hello, dreaming-all-that-is, I am your ruler now and you must obey me,’ I would quickly find myself dreamed out of existence. Similarly, the Industry controls the economy of souls, and Tolshotol protects his suns, and we co-exist… not in peace, necessarily, but in respect. And every so often, when one dares to challenge this delicate balance, they are quick to make an example.
The Garden of the End liked the idea of lordly power—perhaps he looked to the Decaying Crown and found inspiration. Perhaps it is why he left three crowns for his heralds. We go now to one who thinks of herself as a queen.
Story 3 - The Full Junket
“I don’t care, Anderson, push it to tomorrow,” Lady Ethel Mallory grimaced. “I’m in the middle of something.”
She tapped the side of her glasses, switched off the communication channel. Her schedule had imploded since Brooklyn had left—some new girl was supposed to start in a day or two, but it would be months before she was useful. In going through Brooklyn’s files, she’d been amazed just how many little details were taken care of before they ever reached her.
Now she was double-booked almost every hour of the day—but nothing could be more important than this. The air smelled of salt and brine, and distant seagulls wheeled over the beach where the carrier had landed; smooth black metal on a beach of bleached sand and bone. On the horizon, one could almost make out the towers of the Golden Gate bridge emerging from the glassy Pacific. Behind her, the towering surfaces of Box Cassiopeia.
Armed bodyguards followed behind her, although they were new as well—she could not keep any of Marco’s personnel, just to be on the safe side. They kept a wide berth of her flies, which trailed behind her on leashes, tugged any time that a seagull drew their attention. Ahead of her, the carrier ramp slid open, and two people were wrangled down it onto the beach by more Botco guards in black armor. One of them screamed obscenities, pushed against the guards, and went stumbling onto the beach as Lady Ethel approached.
“So sorry to keep you waiting,” she said. She handed off the leashes of her flies to the guards, and beckoned the staff away from her new guests. Valerie still had her hair short, and the real Riot was even angrier and dirtier in person. Both shared a sudden stillness and look of shock as she drew near.
“Ethel?” said Valerie. “Is that you? Why are you…”
“Clara said she was crazy tall, mom,” Riot muttered. Lady Ethel smiled to hide her annoyance.
“It’s good to see you after all this time, Val,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t come see you in Box Andromeda, but I wasn’t exactly responsible for you at the time. And Riot! It’s so good to finally meet you. You are the real one, yes?”
“Why are you so tall?” Riot said, standing on the beach, and staring up like a furious little dog. “I want my sword back. And my book. And I want to know where my friends are.”
“The last thing you need is a weapon,” Lady Ethel sniffed, and crossed her arms. “Can you believe it’s taken all this time to get both of you together?”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Valerie said, sinking to her knees on the ruinous beach. She seemed to be talking more to herself than anyone else. “Some people are dead. And ghosts. And vampires. And I have two daughters. And Ethel is gigantic. I think I’ve lost it.”
“A lot can change in twenty years,” Lady Ethel shrugged. “It’s a nice view, isn’t it? There’s not much left of San Francisco, so you take what you can get. I wanted to talk with you before you’re interred.”
“Entered by what?” Riot said.
“Interred,” said Val. “She’s going to put us in coffins.”
“I’m not doing that,” Riot said, shaking her head and stumbling back through the sand. “I hate being stuck. I won’t. This is my first time on a real beach, and I… I don’t want to go inside.”
“I’ve put too much effort into collecting you two to allow you to stage another haphazard escape,” Lady Ethel said, and glanced to the guards in the distance. “There’s a trail of ruined Botulus Corporation property wherever you go.”
“If you put us in Dreaming Pods I won’t cooperate,” Val nodded. “I won’t. I’ll fight you every step of the way.”
“Val, look at yourself,” Lady Ethel said. “Now look at your daughter. You’ve run out of leverage. Do you want Riot to go through the same nightmare treatment you did in here? Do you think her plucky attitude would survive that?”
“I can handle anything,” Riot said, stomping towards her. “Don’t threaten my mom. I’ll make you pay for it. I want my things back, and my friends safe. Where are they?”
“Riot, darling, let me make something perfectly clear,” Lady Ethel said, and leaned down ten feet to Riot’s level. “You grew up with Val as your mother, so you probably see yourself as a star. As a world-changer. An underdog. Someone who wins no matter the odds. But these are dangerous lies. You are one girl, and you are young, and small, and utterly insignificant except for the gifts of marketing and audience and brand identity that I bestow. There is one thing you can do that matters, and it is to repeat what I tell you to say.”
Riot began to speak, face red and trembling, but Val put a hand on her shoulder.
“What do you want, Ethel?” said Val. “Besides humiliating me and my daughter.”
“Do you feel humiliated?” said Lady Ethel, straightening up. “That’s nice, but it’s not the point. No. You two are going to be my puppets. I will give you words to say. You can expect a full junket—press releases, interviews, biopics, documentaries, maybe even a new song collaboration—we’ve got Avery Crane on the line for a remix of ‘Gotta Keep Rolling’. I promised I would own your brand, Val, and now I do.”
“For what?” Riot said. “What is all this for? Why have you been hunting us so friggin’ long?”
“All you need to know,” said Lady Ethel, “is that when I tell you to, you will speak, and you will not say one word out of line, or I will hurt one of you and make the other watch.”
“Ethel,” said Val, raising her sandy palms, “relax. Okay. You’ve won. Can we be civil about this? Where are the people we were with? And what is this for? We’ll play better if we know what the game is.”
“Alright,” Lady Ethel said, flexed one of her gloved hands, “as long as you play nice. I’m not exactly sure where all your motley horde has ended up. I’d have to check—there were particular requests for some of them. You two are the only important ones, anyway. Secondly, I’m not going to tell you what I’m working on. But if you play your parts correctly, I will be sitting in the top office in Box Orion, and I will have no further use for you. After that, you’ll be free to do whatever you want. Dump you back in the forest. Let you wander into the ocean for all I care.”
“Do you mean that?” said Riot. “Or are you lying?”
“Obviously she’s lying,” Val sighed. “Truth for her is a budget report.”
“Oh I am being perfectly transparent,” said Ethel, looking across the dead beach. “Very soon, I will run the Prime Dream. You want to die in the wilderness? That’s your prerogative. I’m willing to let bygones be bygones if I get what I want.”
There was a ping in her glasses; an alert for the next meeting. She raised a glove, and snapped her fingers; bodyguards came rushing back to apprehend the two—Riot threw two punches before they got a hold of her; Valerie stood with a glaring facade of dignity.
“Take them into Box Cassiopeia,” she said. “And get them ready for onboarding. Don’t worry, you two. It’s as easy as falling asleep.”
Outro - Royalties
Royalties. You may look, dreamer, to others and wonder at their splendor. There goes the Count with his fleet of followers. There sits Norman Gurney, the petrol baron of the Permian Basin. There is Lady Ethel Mallory, with what she would describe as beauty and grace.
But each of these are just people, and like you they seek out opportunity and fear failure, and have shaped their lives with what they have been given. They are above you only in what they have learned over the course of their journeys. There are no gods among humankind. No chosen ones. And you may look to their lives for inspiration as you continue to plot your steps, but know that you are not so far behind them yourself.
You may find, as you draw closer, that their crowns are hollow—they shine because you imagined them to, but your monarchs are like you in that they do not know where they are supposed to go from here. Until all the kings are dead, dreamer, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting regally for your return to the Hallowoods.
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