HFTH - Episode 89 - Terminations



Content warnings for this episode include: Abuse, Ableism, Animal death (Bert as usual), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Smoking, Asking For Death



Intro - Smile Still Knowing

You are fired. Your employer does not say those words exactly—the intent is packaged between mentions of performance reviews and tenure and budget cuts, assurances that things are tough for the entire department. He has not stopped smiling the same apologetic smile, his hands are folded politely.


Your reflection in his bone-white teeth smiles back, nods with understanding. Does he know, you wonder? What you pay for medication each month, for food and insurance and doctor’s visits and gasoline and debt? Does he know that if you do not find a new job this week, that you will not be able to pay rent?


Does he smile, still knowing? Or does he smile to forget?


When the rains fall that night, and the world is set ablaze in their wake, it is a relief, and your debts are forever unpaid, a blessing that goes Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now, I’m sitting in what was formerly an employee lounge. The decor, however, is too alien to be comforting, too white and silver and sharp to allow for relaxation. It is metaphorically a prison in that its employees are trapped in their company, never to escape. It is literally a prison in that three people are locked inside this room, awaiting their fates. The theme of tonight’s episode is Terminations.



Story 1 - Stuck In A Box Screaming

“Door, open!” said Riot. The door did not open, and the air was getting stuffy inside the little glass-windowed room. There was a box of ‘Lee’s Donuts - America’s Greatest’ open on the table, and she chewed on half a chocolate sprinkle as she turned to pace the windows.


“Two things,” said the guy with whom they were imprisoned. He had scruffy dark hair, and stubble, and sat in the corner curled up by himself. “First is, there’s no Boxy control on that door. Second is that I don’t think you have any security clearance—they rewrote all the codes.”


“It was worth a try,” Riot shrugged. There was an air vent, but unfortunately movies had lied—it was maybe six inches wide. Windows on one side were the thick wall of Box Cassiopeia, looking out on a grey-tinted shore. Through the door she could see her things in the room across the hall—a sword and satchel and Walt Pensive’s Groundskeeping cap. She looked back to the man. “Do you have any better ideas?”


“Riot, don’t talk to him,” said her mother, sitting in the opposite corner, looking ready for sleep. “He’s a plant so Ethel can get information out of us.”


“Is that true?” Riot said, and put the rest of the donut in her mouth and crossed her arms. “Is your name even really Marco?”


“It is, and I’m not a plant… of any kind,” said Marco. “I used to be a security officer for Lady Ethel’s entourage. But, ah. I resigned. Unofficially. I might have been fired. Either way, it’s nice to meet you both in person. I wish you’d escaped successfully.”


“We did,” said Riot. She picked up one of the conference chairs and propped it against the table. “And if Diggory hadn’t invited my Botco clone to come along, we’d still be free right now. But we’ll escape again. We’ll figure it out.”


She stamped on the metal chair leg to break it off, but it wouldn’t give; she took another few stomps, grunted louder with each kick.


“Riot, stop that,” said Valerie. The chair leg was half off now, twisted at the base, and Riot looked up with a little surprise. Her mother looked back with a familiar tired expression.


“Sorry,” Riot said, and leaned on the ruined chair. “One of your headaches?”


“Yes, but also in general,” her mom said, leaned back against the wall by the window. “We have to take this seriously. Do you understand how much power they have? Right now they’re preparing coffins for us, and they’re going to bury us in here. And acting out is only going to make things worse.”


Riot stood still, squinted.


“Are you my real mom?”


Valerie’s eyes widened a little. “What? Of course I am.”


“Because you’re not acting like it,” Riot said, and stomped on the chair leg again, and it snapped off entirely. She dropped the rest of the chair, picked up the metal bar to inspect. “You always said to fight. Even when it doesn’t seem like it will do anything. Isn’t that what like half your music is about? Isn’t that what you wanted to do when you wrote all those songs? I grew up listening to them, and I believed them. My mom is a fighter.”


“She might have been,” said Valerie, staring at her from the corner. Riot could not tell who the disappointment in her voice was for. “But I’ve been in there. And the things they can do to you in dreams are worse than anything they could do in real life. You’ll never know what’s real, Riot, or what’s been made to hurt you. If she locks us away we might never see sunlight again. That should terrify you.”


“I don’t get terrified, mom,” said Riot. “I get mad.”


She swung the chair leg against the lounge room door; felt the bar shudder in her hands as it bounced off the glass. There was barely a mark.


“Your temper is not always going to solve your problems,” her mother said. “I fought for years, Riot. I’ve done everything I can. It doesn’t make a difference.”


“I hate that this is us,” Riot said, and swung at the door again, left no trace. A third strike, a fourth, and her chair leg bent in half. She held it, trembling, and her face felt hot. She went back to the three-legged chair, lifted it onto the table. “We always end up stuck in a box screaming at each other. And I can’t do it again. That’s been my whole life. I have things now. I have responsibilities.”


“At least we’ll be together,” said her mother, folding her arms over her knees. “If you don’t run away and leave me for the flies. Is that responsibility?”


Riot froze, and let the chair clatter to the ground.


“I didn’t mean to leave you,” she said. “I mean… not forever.”


“How long did it take you to notice?” said Valerie, glaring. “Weeks? Months? This is the problem. You never think about anyone else. You’re not thinking now. Is this place really so bad if we’re together?”


Riot opened her mouth, but could not find words, so she screamed instead, and stomped over to the door, kicked it once, and sat down in front of it in a heap.


This couldn’t be the end. She wouldn’t allow it. She wouldn’t lie down like some drama queen begging for sympathy. She was going to break glass, break skin, break out of here. Whatever it took. Why didn’t her mom ever see any good in her?


“With all due respect, Miss Maidstone,” said Marco after a long silence, “your daughter has put a lot of time into your rescue. Really incredible. I should know, because I’ve been on her surveillance detail.”


“You were watching my daughter?” Valerie growled.


“Yeah, more or less,” said Marco. “I watched her fight an army of ghosts. Survive out in the wilderness. Mount two separate attacks on Dreaming Boxes, one of which put an entire security grid out of commission. Drive across a continent to reach you. She’s moved mountains to get you back.”


“I’m sorry, Riot,” said her mom, which Riot could not recall hearing before. Riot sniffed, and rubbed her nose with her arm.


“You don’t have to be,” said Riot. “Clearly it wasn’t enough.”


Nobody said anything for a minute, and Riot sat up, turned her back to the door.


“Can I ask a question?” she said. “Do you even want to come back with me? I’ve… I’ve done so much that you weren’t there for. I had this friend, mom, and his name was Walt. And I lost him. But he taught me a lot of stuff. Like how to put your feet when you swing a sword, or how to do accounting for your business, or types of flowers.


And especially, more than anything, that you don’t have to fight your way out all the time. Sometimes you can talk. And sometimes you do fight, even if it seems impossible, and you can win.


I’ve seen dead people and ghosts, and spiders the size of cars. I’ve read stories to giants in the dark. I’ve seen vampires and wolves and maybe the devil. And… I think I’m better than I was when you knew me.


And if you come back… you’ll see my new life. Violet and Berne, they’ll love you. And Hector and Jonah and Zelda. And Clara. It’s all new. It’s all mine. But if you want to stay here and dream about your band days with a girl who’s better at being your daughter… I get it. You don’t have to come with me.”


Her mother chewed on her thoughts, and looked up.


“I would like to see your life, Riot,” she breathed. “I would like to be part of it. But I don’t see how we’re ever going to get that chance.”


“Again, I don’t mean to intrude,” said Marco, raising his hand. “But there are certain mistakes that would never be made if a proper security officer was in charge. Like putting your former employees and your prisoners in the same holding cell. And I think if there’s anyone who can help you get out of here, it’s me.”



Interlude 1 - Home Security

You are wandering the wastelands of America—desperate for shelter, for food, for weapons. All seems desolate around you, except for one house, gated, pristine. Metal walls and glass surfaces. How have the buzzards before you missed this gleaming oasis? You may stumble towards it, dreamer, loft yourself over the front gates. You go for the door… you would not see the little red eyes until it was too late. It would be a mistake, dreamer. It would be your last.


Botco was producing terrible devices well before their first Dreaming Box opened, and home security was among their fortes. You will find some houses still alive, although their masters are no longer. Their cheery personal assistants control electronics, doors, lights, windows, temperature, and in some cases what would be legally classified as burglary deterrents. They would also be classified as deadly.


If you are preparing to raid a property, and do not know whether it might be armed by automated assistants, call out ‘Hey Boxy!’ before you break and enter. If you hear a voice respond, microphone ruined by the years and voice a garbled whisper, do not enter. There will be other homes ahead that are well and truly dead.


We go now to a security risk.



Story 2 - One Last Puff

“My employment?” said Polly. He pulled himself up, dusted off the shoulders of his ripped dress shirt, rolled up his sleeves. Yaretzi stood close, and Mort’s skull watched with interest from the beach of junk. The body across from him, with its scarred skin and half-arm of vines, belonged to Rick Rounds, but the obtuse posture and regal glare belonged to Typhon the Terrible.


“Did you really think it was that simple?” said Typhon. It was odd to see Rick’s face so tranquil. “That you could just snatch one of my canes and run? You’re lucky that you’re one of my favorites. I did wish to have this conversation privately, if you can dismiss your riffraff. Perhaps make yourself presentable.”


“Presentable?” Polly said, glaring down. “I’m sorry, are my horns showing? You’re wearing a shirtless ruffian with a bush for an arm. And anything you wish to say, you can say in front of my friends.”


“Am I still your friend?” said Mort quietly. “Even if I’m not in my suit?”


“Why is that even…” Polly began, and then had to wonder. He had once thought of Mort as a useful piece of machinery, no more special than an excavator. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt that way, however. “Of course you’re my friend, Mort. Whatever form you’ve got.”


“Naturally, the textbook method for a runaway devil is to send out Auditors,” Typhon continued. “Drag you back for sentencing. And end up… well. I have no desire to see your eyes on my desk, Apollyon. I think you have leadership potential.”


“‘Leadership potential’?” Polly said, exchanging a glance with Yaretzi. She had an expression he’d come to interpret as ‘please can I eat him’, to which he shook his head—noticed her jaws were stained black. There was smoke on her breath.


“You had me filing seventeenth century audits,” Polly said. “What about that says management track?”


“I did second through eighth century audits,” said Typhon, with a self-righteous sniff that did not look at home on Rick’s face. “It built my character. The best leaders have put in time on the ground.”


“Well I think it’s all in the wash now,” said Polly. “Did you come all this way just to tell me you liked me? I’m touched.”


“I want you back in your department,” said Typhon. “You return to work, and nothing changes. We forget about this whole affair—and I will even do you the courtesy of leaving these monstrosities alive.”


“Give me even one reason why I should do that,” Polly said, and leaned forward—he felt his horns burning brightly, let the fire spark in his eyes. “Why I shouldn’t let Yaretzi kill you a second time right here and now.”


“Destroy this body, if you want. I don’t care what happens to it. I’ll spare you the obvious threat of violence. You know what real Auditors are capable of,” said Typhon, and went to fold his hands together, and frowned to find his thorn-arm was missing from above the elbow, slowly growing little flowers.


“I had the same aspirations, once. The fourth century was a big year for the Industry. We gained power. And I was concerned, at the time. I contemplated an escape. Perhaps I would go live among the Romans. But my manager then was kind enough to explain to me exactly what I’m about to explain to you.”


“I grow bored,” Yaretzi yawned, and showed her rows of teeth. “A demon’s weapons are his words, Apollyon. Do not let his pierce your ears.”


“Don’t worry,” said Polly, and gave her killer claw a comforting pat with his remaining hand. “He’s not the only one well-armed. You’ve travelled a long way to share this wisdom, Tiff. I hope it’s enlightening.”


“It doesn’t matter as much as you think it does,” said Tiff, with all of Rick’s needless urgency. “What you’re doing. Wandering around with runaways and killers. It feels exhilarating in the moment, I know. I was young once too. I remember how powerful the gravity of adventure is. And for a short time, it is pleasant. But I expect you can already feel it, whether you admit it to yourself or not: that the listless lack of purpose is setting in.


There is security in the Industry, the promise of endurance across countless centuries. You will be safe. You will not starve throughout the aeons. These are its promises. But more than that, I think, is the importance of doing work that lasts. You can stay here with these people, and you will eventually starve, or become something desperately undignified. But every paper filed, every stamp pressed at your auditing desk is eternal. That is the only thing you can do in this existence that does truly matter. It is your purpose.”


“My purpose?” Polly said, and wept and laughed at once, tears of fire in his eyes. “What purpose is that? To drop a few more souls into the Industry's grinning stomach? To double and triple-check that we have expunged every trace of life in this universe? That we have cultivated suffering so that profits go up a quarter of a percent over a millennia?


We take the fire of living, Tiff, something truly remarkable, and we break it down into bodies and briefcases and umbrellas, and feed an engine that will never be full. Is that the purpose you’re so proud of?”


Tiff looked at him a long moment through Rick’s eyes, and Polly could not tell if he was exasperated or broken.


“It matters,” Tiff repeated quietly. “Because we are part of something bigger than us. We give up these selfish wastes of time so that the machine runs. It is a sacrifice, yes, but it is a noble one. The most important one you can make.


And one day, when you are burning out, when your friends are long gone, you might understand that. But I hope it won’t come to that. I hope you’ll do the smart thing and come back now. This is the most generous offer anyone will ever give you. It is the first such offer I have ever made. It will be the last. If you do not accept, well. When the Auditors come for you, they will not be so generous.”


Polly stared at Rick, tried to work out one thing that perplexed him. Typhon had never shown him favoritism that Polly could fathom—not compared to Barb, for whom Tiff had once had so much hope. Barb, whose eyes now stared from Tiff’s desk jar. Polly had worked in accounting long enough to know that something didn’t add up.


“It’s Lucy,” said Polly, as it dawned on him. “He’s upset with you, isn’t he?”


“Absolutely not,” said Typhon; his demeanor shifted immediately though. “You are in a serious breach of confidentiality saying that name in front of a starwolf.”


“No, that’s not quite right, but…” said Polly, and grinned. “Oh! He hasn’t heard yet. That two of your apprentices have up and quit. You want me back before he notices. Is that what all this is about?”


“I refuse to receive a performance review on account of your malfeasance,” Tiff snapped. “My record has been untarnished. I intend to keep it that way.”


“You want to talk employment, Tiff? Here’s employment for you. And be prepared to draft this up into something binding,” said Polly, standing up to pace the beach. “You will stop pursuing me and my friends. No auditors. No mercenaries. No strange little pet projects like this one. You will leave me alone to do what I very well please, and you will not ever visit me again.


Because if you do, so help me, I will go to Lucy himself and explain to him why your management has a higher defection rate than any other department.”


Typhon stared for a moment, burning coals in Rick’s eyes, and lifted his remaining hand; immediately there was a burning contract in it, and he tossed it to Polly for review.


“You’ll keep quiet about this, then,” Typhon growled as Polly flipped through the terms and conditions, pulled a pen from the air to cross out subsections and amend terminology, tossed it back to Typhon.


“I assure you, Tiff,” said Polly, “I never want anything to do with the Industry again.”


Typhon nodded, poring over the changes, and added his signature to the page.


“I will see you again, Apollyon,” he said, and with a flash of his hand the paper was gone. “One day, when you finally are killed. And on that day, you’ll realize the value of the kindness you have so blatantly disregarded.”


“Then, Tiff,” said Polly, “I’ll see you in hell.”


Rick’s eyes were empty of light, then, and Typhon was gone from the earth.



Marketing - Reorganizational Factors

Lady Ethel:

Hello there, member of our Happy Dreaming Family. If you’re receiving this message, I have some bad news—we at Botco have elected to discontinue your employment experience with our company. I know your first reaction may be fear, anger, anxiety. Let’s sit with that for a minute.


And while we’re sitting with it, you should know this was not a personal decision, and could have been any combination of environmental, training, experience, logistical, managerial, distributional, organizational or reorganizational factors. Have you identified your feelings? Good. Now, let’s talk about what comes next.


You may be under the impression that once you’re fired, you will be turned outside, like a bad orphan at a… wherever orphans work. Banish those thoughts from your head. Even though you have been deemed unprofitable at your current role, you do have options.


The first is to complete a re-evaluation and training program. Maybe there’s an area you could be more effective in. But even if you are truly, profoundly useless, you can still be a consumer as a normal, everyday Dreaming Box Subscription member. Think of it as retirement without pay! There are plenty of activities you can do inside the Prime Dream to generate value…



Story 2, Continued - One Last Puff

I have worked one job, dreamers, and I kept it up quite a while. Unfortunately for my career, I… became distracted. I suppose I could still go back to guarding the gates. I think, sometimes, that all of you—the Indescribable life dreaming—are just waiting for me to return to my place. But for now, the gates stand empty, for I am under different employ—my own whim and fancy, my own creation, stories I wish to tell.


We return now to Apollyon.


“Yaretzi?” Polly said; a certain fatigue caught up with him—a little physical, as his body patched together the worst of the damage, but more so emotional. The unexpected moment of relief at the end of a long journey.


“I didn’t want to ask while Tiff was lurking about,” Polly said. “But whose blood is that on your breath?”


“Barbatos is no more,” said Yaretzi, and she looked at him, half a wolf now, a golden sorrow in her eyes. “He offered his heart to save yours. I had no love for him—he was all that I loathed about devils. And yet, now, to him I owe our family. But that is how creation works. Born from sacrifice. I will ask… has his soul gone to the sky of the sun?”


“If you mean, has he returned to the Industry?” said Polly, and frowned. “I’m not certain. He was already exiled once—and while to come back from exile is death, it’s usually voluntary. I don’t know that anyone has ever been in his situation before.”


“Is it good if he’s alive?” said Mort, a wet skull sitting beside his collapsed metal body. “I thought he was my friend. Then he wasn’t. Then he was again. Then he wasn’t. Now I think maybe he is again.”


“Given how the Industry deals with its ex-employees,” said Polly, “it might be better if he’s gone for good. But Yaretzi, Mort… I am so glad you’re alright.”


“So there’s no killing you anyway,” said Rick, raised his head from the rusty sheet of metal where he lay. Polly had almost forgotten about him.


“It’s harder than you’d think,” said Polly. Polly’s missing hand hadn’t regrown yet; he examined the glowing stump. “Our playing field is a little different than yours.”


“So it was all for nothing,” Rick wheezed. “He tricked me. I know you’re probably going to kill me now. But can I ask you one thing?”


“What am I, the oracle at Delphi?” said Polly.


“Why me?” Rick said. “Why’d you come into my life and ruin it?”


“I told you,” said Polly, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It was never personal. We were out for a stroll when you chased us down and kidnapped Yaretzi. I took back my friend and my umbrella. And you hunted us down to the ends of the earth from there. I rather hoped you had died of tetanus.”


Polly breathed for a moment, glanced to Yaretzi, who was looking wolven indeed, and licked her teeth.


“That ain’t right,” said Rick. “You’re still lyin’. Buck turned his back on me. Mrs. Wicker. All my friends. They wouldn’ta done that unless they were cursed. Everyone I knew my whole life threw me out like I ain’t nothin’. Like the infected in a plague. You made that happen.”


“Have you considered,” Polly said, folded his hands together beneath his chin, “That they did that because you are cruel and insufferable and have a bit of a masochistic streak?”


“I don’t know what that last one means, but that appears to be the shape of it,” Rick sighed. The veins of his human hand had gone black, as if burned. He cradled his arm of broken thorns.


“Yaretzi, what do you think we should do with him?” Polly said, straightening up. He glanced around at the scattered beach, plucked up a rusted object—an umbrella with two arms missing; its tattered fabric said ‘I love New York’. Something to lean on, anyway.


“He is your quarry, Apollyon. But I think you should kill him. Slowly,” said Yaretzi, and stood up, piled Mort’s bones back into his metal suit, and began hauling him by one boot for the water. “I am going to put Mort back together.”


Polly stood above Rick Rounds and sighed, plucked a cigarette from the air.


“Smoke?”


“One last puff,” said Rick, and accepted one as well—two curling wisps rose into the atlantic breeze, in the shadow of Lady Liberty’s salvaged carcass.


“Here’s the thing,” Polly said. “You’ve tried three times now, to kill me. Even by generous standards, that’s too many. You worked with my evil boss. And you’ve inconvenienced me and severely hurt everyone I care about on this earth. I literally cannot picture a scenario in which you live on to do any good. If you walk away today, where does Rick Rounds go?”


“Doesn’t go far, I think,” said Rick. Even as they spoke, his arm of thorny vines was blooming, little yellow and orange blossoms creeping along the surface as his jagged bones regrew. “The most hideous plague in the universe. That’s what the angel said I got. I’m already dead, aren’t I.”


“Oh absolutely,” said Polly. “Very tragic. Oh well.”


“There’s one place,” said Rick. “There’s this kid. I killed him. Kind of on accident, when we were young. He came back. He’s the one who did this to my face. But when I was dying and sweating my soul out, he read some books to me. Said I should come visit him and his dogs.


I don’t know what that is, devil-man. How a person could ever forgive after what I did to him. Read beside the bedside of someone who took your life away.”


“It’s more than you deserve,” said Polly. In the distance, Yaretzi sat in human form on Mort’s chest, half submerged in the rolling black waves, hammered his broken chest hatch back into shape.


“I know,” said Rick, half laid in flowers, his fireless eyes cast down to the earth. “Kill me. Please. I’ve got nothing left except my name. And I’d rather die Rick Rounds than whoever these thorns are going to make me. Send me on to hell.”


“Hell isn’t real, Rick Rounds,” Polly said, and tapped his umbrella on the beach. “It’s hell we make in our lives, for ourselves. You’ve forged your chains. Carry them far away from me.”


Polly turned, and left Rick to lie in the ruins of New York. Ahead of him were his family, and a world that was truly his for the first time, and he stumbled then into a limping run, and laughed as he splashed into the shallows with his family, and did not think even once about the quality of his fine silk trousers.



Interlude 2 - Not The Ocean, But The Currents

There are indescribable beings that oversee so many aspects of this universe—sight and dream, storm and science, starlight and souls. One might wonder, perhaps, if there is one who can manipulate time. Surely it is not a great thing to ask, compared to those who oversee things like omniscience. And yet, there is none.


Believe me, I have asked. I do not profess to be a scholar, dreamers, but I can say that few have as thoroughly sought out methods to undo the past. But time is not… a thing, something that exists. It is a consequence of your actions only if you are very small and stay quite still.


To life indescribable, time is a blurrier thing—not the ocean, but the currents. Future and past blended into one impossible moment, and in it all is guaranteed only one thing: you cannot go back. What has been done is done, and we have only an eternal future to make sense of the now.


We go now to one who worries her time has run out.



Story 3 - Always Cold

“Is it cold in here, or is it just me?” said Danielle. She shivered beneath the leather jacket, but Diggory seemed unfazed.


“I am not sure I would know,” said Diggory. “I am always cold.”


“Like literally? Do you want your jacket back? Or is that a dead pun? I wasn’t sure if you had a sense of humor.”


Diggory had a faraway look for a moment—or maybe they were just watching the door; it was hard to tell with those aimless white eyes.


“I can hear footsteps,” said Diggory, and Danielle glanced around the concrete room. Windowless, bare except for her wheelchair and a couple of folding cots and a spray-painted symbol on the back wall; one she recognized, with an angel cracking apart a little cube in her hands.


The footsteps were loud enough that Danielle could hear them now, and she folded her hands in her lap, sat up as dignified as she could. Diggory sat cross-legged in the center of the floor, and with a creak, the metal door swung open.


There were stairs beyond; shadows of people with weapons and murmurs from above. But the woman standing in the doorway did not seem afraid; tall and muscled, with a blond ponytail that fell down to her shoulders, and eyes as cold as glacial rifts.


She wore black protective gear, and had an oddly shaped backpack slung over her shoulder. She seemed as though the years had been kind to her skin and cruel to her heart, and Danielle was slightly mesmerized. I wish I could look like her when I’m older, she thought.


But presently, the woman was not looking at Danielle, but at Diggory, who stared motionless in return.


“There are a lot of questions we need answered,” said the woman, and Danielle shivered again. “Who you are, and how you gave me and five other people the exact same dream, and why the flies raided Belfry, Montana. But the first question on my mind is, why are you wearing parts of my wife?”


“Wearing…?” Diggory said, and raised their dagger-tipped fingers slowly to touch their own jaw. “I think I remember you. You insisted on an outdoor wedding. It was a mistake. It rained, and our lives—your lives—were never the same.”


The woman stared from the doorway, as if frozen stiff.


“Riz?”


“I am sorry,” said Diggory. “Rizwana Mirza died a long time ago… and I was born. She lives on in my memories, and my soul. But if it helps, I remember how much she loved you.”


The woman put a fist to her mouth, quietly suffocated a sob, and sat down on the first basement step, elbows on her knees.


“I hoped she was alive,” she breathed after a moment. “But not like this. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter now. Can you please tell me who you two are.”


“I’m pretty sure you already know my name,” Danielle piped up, although she couldn’t help but feel like she was crashing a troubled family reunion. “I’m Danielle.”


“And I am Diggory Graves,” said the undead, lowering their head. “I am sorry for your loss, Cindy.”


“Cindy?” Danielle said, and put her hands on her wheels, pulled herself forward a few centimeters. “Is your name Cindy? And why did you stick us in a murder basement?”


“Cindy Lockheart,” said Cindy, and waved her hand as if banishing thoughts. “It’s not a murder basement. It’s a safe house. One of many. We can’t stay in one place for long or it draws attention, from the flies or worse.”


“I know that symbol,” Danielle said, nodded to the mural behind her. “I’ve seen it in the Prime Dream. Are you the Stonemaids? I thought you were only inside…”


“We are Stonemaids, yes,” said Cindy. “There were always people, myself and Riz included, who opposed what Botco had been doing. We didn’t go away. And when people in the Prime Dream found ways to reach out, ask for help, we listened. Most of our members on the outside are former Botco employees, people we’ve managed to sneak out.”


“So there are other people who’ve escaped?” said Danielle. “Not just me? Do they get better?”


“Danielle, we’ve had very few people emerge from a dreaming pod, let alone people who’ve been there since birth,” said Cindy, sitting forward a little. “We weren’t sure if someone in your position could survive. But knowing that you can… is good. For what we want to do.”


“It hasn’t been easy,” said Danielle. “Obviously I can’t walk yet. Diggory’s been helping me do things.”


“How do you know this ‘Diggory’?” said Cindy, staring down the stitched-together revenant.


“I called for help,” said Danielle. “And they came. I guess I have dream powers? I don’t have a cooler word for that yet. Dreamomancy? Nocturnesis? Anyway. They weren’t alone. Our friends—Valerie Maidstone, and Riot, and the other Riot, and Olivier…”


“And Percy,” Diggory said.


“And Percy,” said Danielle. “He’s a ghost. Do you know what happened to them? Botco found us, and we haven’t seen them since.”


“The drone swarm at Belfry split in three directions,” said Cindy. “Part for Box Atlas in Seattle, part for Box Cassiopeia in… what used to be San Franscisco, and part for Box Orion—that’s Botco’s headquarters in LA.”


“So they could be at any one of them,” said Danielle.


“Or all three,” added Cindy.


“Which one is that way?” said Diggory, lifting a pointed finger towards the wall. Cindy blinked once or twice.


“Box Orion, I think,” she said. “How do you know that?”


“It feels like the right way to walk,” said Diggory. “Your sense of geography is quite good.”


“Part of the trade,” said Cindy, and shouldered her bag.


“Will you help us get our friends back?” said Danielle, and crossed her arms. “If you can find a way to let me dream in Botco’s network, I can do a lot more than just send messages. But I don’t think we can walk there alone.”


Diggory stood up like a long shadow, and flexed their dagger fingers. Cindy did not flinch. “If not, then we will leave and see to it ourselves.”


“Help? Of course. This is our mission,” Cindy said, and rapped the doorframe twice with her fist; there was movement and a relieved clamor from somewhere above. She stood, and shot Danielle half a smile, the kind that holds grief like a magazine holds bullets.


“Welcome to the Stonemaids.”


Outro - Terminations

Terminations. They say all good things come to an end. I do not know why the saying is so specific. Would it not be more comforting to say all bad things come to an end? Or simply: all things end. Careers and homes, loves and lives, planets and stars.


I find no beauty in endings, in paths cut off and stories left half-finished. If there is any good that comes of loss, dreamers, I believe it does not come swiftly. It is buried beneath the soil, like hope. It waits for the spring to emerge from the earth, soaks in the sunlight of brighter days.


Flowers and vines bloom from beneath the flagstones of the past, and although what has ended is irrevocable, it is a little more beautiful in memory, and already a new beginning takes root.


Until you learn to smile again, dreamer, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting without judgement for your return to the Hallowoods.



The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Long Gone', 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!