Content Warning: This episode may include themes of birds, death + injury, body horror, kidnapping + abduction, animal death, violence, emotional manipulation, and terrorism.
Intro - The Grackle
It appears to you when you most expect it—when you know that you will never walk another step. You regard it with relief, as though it were a taxi you hailed on a busy street. The Grackle perches above you, a huge black claw inches away from your glazed eyes. You know that the crossing is not free, but you have nothing to give. The Grackle reaches down with a razor-sharp beak to pluck a silver button from your jacket. It is enough. It encircles you in its claws, and beats its wings as dark as a thunderstorm, and the Grackle lifts you into the air. Clouds and trees and mountains peel away beneath you, the air whistles in your hair. As it carries you north, it cries 'Hello from the Hallowoods'.
Right now, I’m sitting in a rowboat. The man across from me rows frantically, eyes wild, looking at the sky. I do not know the future, dreamers—but the carrion birds are circling over this one, and it is best not to ignore these signs. The theme of tonight’s episode is Birds.
Story 1 - Overdue
Joshua Fishell knew he was being watched, although he could not tell from which direction. He yanked the oars towards him with urgency, pushed them away with haste. Each motion helped the boat across the water, skipping against the choppy waves. From the trees that rose up on all sides, birds stirred into the air. Joshua spat into the water, and leaped up as the boat reached the shore. He bounded up the stony bank, abandoning the vessel, and raced into the woods.
He thought he saw black shadows flicker between the spruces, but he did not turn his gaze, and he broke through the trees onto a plateau of rock. The cabin sat on the edge, overlooking the islands in the distance. He tripped on a root, rose with a bloody knee, and stumbled towards the door. A word was chipped into the wood of its surface. ‘Overdue’.
“I need more time!” He roared, to no one he could see, and unlocked it.
He threw himself inside, but the ravens were close behind, flocking out of the trees. They beat the air raucously, scraping his head with their talon. He threw the door shut, blocking them out, but they battered at the windows. They thumped and pecked against the glass, and there was a guttural groan from the back of the cabin. Joshua crawled towards the cage, pulling the blanket off.
The mottled fingers inside were sharp, and clawed at him, but he jumped back deftly. His Darlene was in there, eyes glinting green, a multitude of arms and fingers scrabbling at the bars. All the teeth she’d grown champed at the cold metal.
“It won’t be long now, Darly.” He whispered, and knelt beside her cage.
Joshua pulled the book from his coat—an ancient volume, bound in leather, and unscarred by time. Its red glyphs looked wet, and on the inside of the cover, a printed card read ‘Property of Downing Hill Public Library’. Every page beyond it was a labyrinth, an infinite staircase leading down into knowledge. He had gone deep, but never far enough. He had no choice, he had no time. If he was going to try, it had to be now. He opened the book, and the ravens shrieked in unison.
He was wandering through passages covered in runes, through silent crypts and primordial archives. Years passed without sound or light, until he reached his goal, the burning table at the heart of the world. When he arrived, he spoke.
His words burned like flame and shook the cabin, and Darlene howled in terror. He did not recognize the words on his tongue—voss nen xorn syrensyr, om nen xorn sysrensyr—but they burned in his mind and in his mouth.
Darlene shuddered and twisted as her bones righted themselves, and the black ichor seeped out of her skin to pool on the cage floor. Her lips covered her teeth again, and her eyelids returned, and she smiled at him as she saw clearly for the first moment in years.
Then the door flew open, barraged by a torrent of birds, and as they spiraled around Joshua, his words slipped. Darlene crumbled into burning ash, like the end of a cigarette.
Joshua roared, and fire erupted from his fingertips, setting the cabin ablaze as he spun around. It singed black feathers, and the ravens darted away from him, spinning in a dense column near the door. The column became a figure, a writhing mass of wings and sharp talons, and it lifted a clawed hand. Joshua clutched at his throat as he lifted off the ground, and the fire died with his incantations. The words were burning him now, setting his tongue ablaze, an incredible heat forming behind his eyes.
“Overdue.” The raven person announced. “Joshua Fishell, you have not returned your book.”
Joshua clutched for the volume as it was torn away from his grasp, flew into the omen’s hand. The heat was too much to bear now, and the words he had read on the walls of subterranean passages, studied on pages written in fresh blood, and spoken in haste consumed him. The omen watched with glee as fire burst from Joshua’s eyes, his mouth, burned along the veins in his mind. It held him in the air until the fires burned out to smoke and ash, and let him drop like a small animal to crumple against the floor.
The Omen turned away, folded the book into itself, and scattered into the sky, leaving only feathers and embers in its wake.
Interlude 1 - Ring of Birds
Attention dreamers anywhere near a Dreaming Box. These massive constructs have horrifying effects on the local environment. The toxic waste they create poisons the earth. Animals divert their paths lest they be destroyed by defense mechanisms. Birds which fly too closely drop out of the sky.
If you have not yet been accosted by Botulus Corporation Reunion Organizers, and you are still free to walk the earth, be careful. If you find a ring of dead birds, stretching off into the trees on either side of you, walk no further.
They will know if you cross the ring.
They will know you are not sleeping.
Do not let them find you, dreamer, for if they do, your dreams will be bright and unending, rendered in summer fun and technicolor until the suns stop rising, and you will never hear my voice again. We go now to one who knows my voice.
Story 2 - Good As New
Polly examined a loose thread in his satin floral suit, and pinched it between two fingers, increasing the temperature until it caught on fire. It vanished in a puff of smoke, and he brushed the fibers away. Good as new.
“Where are we going now?” Mort asked. The lumbering beast tottered alongside Polly, skull glinting within a dome of black water. The little green fires that burned in Mort’s eyes were repulsive, but you had to work with the resources that were available. The ghost town and its rows of square white houses disappeared through the trees behind them.
“We’re looking for someone.” Polly said, examining his umbrella.
“Why?” Mort glanced in confusion. Polly knew exactly why he’d chosen Mort, out of all the minions he could have recruited, but the incessant questions were beginning to wear on him.
“They have too many souls.”
“What’s a soul?”
Polly wondered how many times he’d have to strike that dumb glass dome to break it. Probably just once. “There’s fire in every living thing, Mort. It’s called a soul. It’s especially strong in things that create, that make music, that ask questions.”
“Do I have a soul?” The mountain of metal asked. Polly chuckled.
“Of course not Mort. You’re not alive.”
Polly stepped out from the path onto the rocky bank of a river as dark as the water in Mort’s suit. The river was wide, and crossed by a fortress of concrete pillars and steel bars. An electric tower held cables that stretched off for miles, vanishing over the distant trees. Gulls flocked to the surface of the dam, watching as a trickle of water spilled out.
“We’ll cross here.” Polly said, starting towards it. A paved road—a rarity in these parts—ran across the top edge of the dam, on level with the lake above it.
“I can go through the water.” Mort said.
“And I could simply step through space to the other side,” Poly snapped, “but power is a precious resource, like my patience. Not to mention, I’d like to keep my suit nice. You’ll learn about personal grooming someday. Maybe a nice coat of paint on that chassis of yours. We’re taking the bridge.”
Mort said nothing in response, and Polly felt a little badly. Mort was just a corpse in a shell, and he meant well, and Polly had not been straightforward with answers. Polly tried to reinstate a cheerful travelling mood.
“Mort,” he asked, “what do you want? More than anything in the world.”
“I want to go back to sleep.” Mort rumbled. This surprised Polly.
“I raise you from the sea bed to walk the earth once more, and all you want to do is go back?”
“It was nice.” Mort clicked his big claw hand. “I watched the little fish. Sometimes there was sun. Sometimes not. It was easy to understand. Not like here. You make me feel stupid.”
Polly swatted at a seagull as they approached the dam, climbing up the slope to the road. There were more birds towards the top, with rotted wings or missing heads. He despised gulls and pigeons. Birds in general were awful creatures, and they made his visits to earth so much less pleasant.
“Well, if you like,” Polly said, swinging his umbrella at a particularly ugly specimen, “then when I’m done with my business I’ll drop you right back in the drink, and you can watch fish all day and never have to worry about souls, or birds, or friends.”
The dam was larger than one would expect from a distance, and the highway that spanned the river had a black lake on one side and a drop of several dozen feet on the other. Polly could not detect any noise from the generators, although the water passing through the dam was labored, and the level of the lake was so high it almost overtook the road. Polly started across it, beckoning to Mort.
“To tell you the truth, Mort, I didn’t dredge you up from your watery grave for your great conversations. This is a business trip, and I needed a little extra muscle. You were convenient. That is all.”
The road was lined with gulls, which shrieked and hissed as Polly pranced ahead, shooing them. He stopped to look back at Mort, who was peering over the railing into the lake.
“Mort, please hurry up. We don’t have a century here.”
“I see birds.” Mort said, pointing to the water.
“That’s water, Mort. No birds down there.” Polly sighed, and looked over the edge. There were seagulls beneath the surface. They were piled against the dam, pinned by the rushing water. Likely they had drowned and floated downstream until they could go no farther. He could see movement, but was unsure if it was intentional or just the current.
Then the gulls lit up with a multitude of green eyes, and Polly frowned. The black waters had taken their toll. The mass of flesh began to rise from the water, a mound of beaks and blackened feathers. The stench of decay was intense, and the mountain of death rose until it loomed large over the dam, towering over them both. Mort looked up at it with childlike wonder.
“Will you be my friend?” He asked.
Then the colony of gulls shrieked, and flapped thousands of wings across its shapeless form, and lurched towards the bridge.
Marketing - The Endless Skies
Lady Ethel Mallory: Hello Dreaming Box family. I am proud to present the latest update from the Botulus Corporation. Coming soon to the Prime Dream is a brand-new realm for you to soar and explore - the Endless Skies. Now you can experience your dreams of flying any time in this realm of floating islands, cloudy days and crystal clear nights. Sail in the wind with your family and friends— Malcolm Rivera: Hello. This is a message from the Stonemaids. We are not terrorists. We are not dangerous. We are people like you who want justice for Valerie Maidstone. We are people who want to wake up. We are your parents, your siblings, your children. We all have a right to leave this place if we want to. That is what Botco promised us. Demand that Botco release Valerie Maidstone and demand that Botco let us out. Join us and make your voice heard. They can’t ignore us if we’re all together. Join us in the new Endless Skies dreamscape and show Botco that their ‘happy dreaming family’ wants to be free... Lady Ethel Mallory: And we’re back? We're back! To the Botco Show with Lady Ethel Mallory. All is well in our Dreaming Boxes, and everyone is perfectly safe—
Story 2, Continued - Good As New
Did you hear that, dreamers? The interruptions are definitely closer. These transmissions are arriving now almost from the Southern Hallowoods. We may soon be graced with visitors. We return now to Apollyon.
“Mort!” Polly screamed, as the wall of rotted feathers rushed towards him. “Do something!”
Polly leaped out of the way, and the mass broke against the dam, colliding with a sickening thud. Black flesh spattered the concrete, and green raptor eyes swiveled in hollow sockets throughout it. The tangle of little feathery bodies began to rise up the side of the dam, encompassing the road between Polly and Mort.
“You don’t even like me.” Mort announced, crossing his metal arms.
“This is not the time for this conversation!” Polly yelled. The mass shrieked with countless foaming beaks, and he propped open his umbrella just in time to protect his suit jacket from the spittle. It flopped more weight onto the dam, bending the safety rails, and blocking out his view of Mort.
“You always boss me around! It’s not very nice!” Mort yelled from somewhere beyond the storm of decay. The scrabbling wings began to spill towards Polly, and he leaped back, drifting in the air and fire in his eyes. He opened his umbrella, and a point of flame appeared at the end of each metal rod. He gave it a quick spin, and the singular mass of gull backed away, but only momentarily.
“This is what I made you for!” Polly shouted back. A wave of gulls slipped from the mass and writhed across the ground towards him, and he stamped his foot twice, summoning a wave of fire. It peeled away the black ichor that coated their feathers, leaving singular dead birds on the road. The shuddering heap rushed towards him.
“That hurts my feelings.” Mort grumbled. The swarm broke into several arms, closing in on Polly from all directions. Burning eyes opened in the umbrella fabric as a shield descended around Polly, cast from the umbrella’s edge down to the ground. The torrent of foul birds pressed against the wall of fire, screaming in all directions around him.
“I’m sorry!” Polly said, struggling to hold the gulls at bay. “I really am. I’ve been inconsiderate.”
Polly was surrounded by green eyes and gnashing beaks. He heard no response from Mort.
“That’s a word that means I haven’t been thinking about you as much as I should.”
The mass of dead gulls was exerting incredible force; Polly found himself straining against the umbrella handle, fighting to channel enough power without tapping into his reserves.
“You’re my only friend, Mort.” He said, a little afraid of who might be listening.
There was a shudder in the wall of flesh, and the eyes and beaks turned away from Polly’s protective barrier. A second blow followed, and gulls were peeled away from the walls of his shield. In the cracks of light he could see Mort, who drove a massive red fist into the rotting pile. The colony split in half from the shock, sending birds flying into the water on both sides of the road. The remaining clumps of flesh began to ooze away from the bridge, pushing on broken wings into the water. Mort stood on the road like a lost puppy, looking at his hand, and then up at Polly.
“I’m sorry Mort. I’ll try to be a better friend from now on.”
“Okay.” Mort said, tromping past Polly on the way across the bridge. Polly looked after the metal titan, shaking his head. So many loose ends were developing in this mission; each one would have to be dealt with by the end. He started after Mort, stepping over the fallen gulls that blanketed the road. For now, he followed after Mort into the forest, dusting the feathers from his jacket. “Mort? You’ve got something on your suit.”
Mort stopped to look at Polly, with a hiss of hydraulics. Polly used his umbrella to peel away part of a seagull caught in his neck rivets.
“There,” Polly said, “good as new.”
Interlude 2 - Lives of Our Parents
She is up there, behind the stars, with wings as huge as the universe. She is unfathomable to me just as I am incomprehensible to you, dreamer. I think we all struggle to comprehend the lives of our parents, the many millennia in which they floated in darkness and through other dimensions which we have never visited. We do not remember them as they were in their youth, when the cosmos was devoid of starlight, and bright fires burned in the hearts of the outsiders. We know them only for a portion of their lives, and are all too familiar with their mistakes. We see their worst qualities in ourselves, and wonder—will I doom the people I love as they doomed theirs? She is a ghost in my past, but she watches me just as I watch you. Where do you think I got it from? We go now to someone who looks up at the sky and only sees the stars.
Story 3 - Breakfast
“I can’t believe she’s really in there.” Marco whispered. Brooklyn did not look at him, merely staring out the window. The engines whirred as clouds and forests spun by, far beneath them.
“Can I ask? Is she really as nice as she is on the Botco show?” Marco buzzed with excitement. When he’d started out as a lowly security officer, he never thought he’d end up on a personal escort for the Lady herself. The secretary sitting across the lounge looked at him, and smiled with a focused look that made him feel special. He thought that was probably why she was a secretary.
“Lady Ethel is a delight to work for.” She beamed. “I feel very lucky to accompany her on her business. On my birthday she flew in donuts from my favorite donut shop, halfway across the country. She’s always doing nice things like that.”
“That’s awesome.” Marco laughed, and was suddenly very hungry for breakfast.
A red light flashed on above the door. Brooklyn stood up immediately, adjusting her hair and fixing her glasses, and went to fetch one of the suitcases stacked in the lounge. She unbuckled the metal clasps and removed an old-fashioned birdcage. Inside was a dove, feathers a little ruffled from the journey. It whistled insistently, disturbed by the light.
“Is that a pet bird?” Marco watched the scene in confusion. The secretary stopped for a moment, holding the gold cage.
“The Lady has particular tastes,” she smiled, “you’ll get used to them if you spend much time with us.”
She pressed her hand to the panel next to the door, and it slid open. The room beyond it was dark, and Brooklyn stepped in, returning a moment later without the cage. Marco thought he caught a glimpse of red heart-shaped sunglasses, and a pearly white smile that stretched impossibly wide. Then the door was closed. He might have heard a shrill cry from the dove, abruptly cut short, or it might just have been the wind in the rotors. Brooklyn smiled at him, then turned to look out the window.
“Look,” she said with satisfaction, “we’re getting close.”
Anxious for a distraction, Marco could see that the trees had gone from luscious green to midnight black, and the scattered lakes beneath them were as dark as his company-issued armor.
“Say hello,” Brooklyn said, “to the Hallowoods.”
Outro - Birds
Birds. I don’t have much experience with birds. They’re more of a human thing. You treat them like a symbol of freedom, of life, of hope. When the birds sing you think ‘this is a lovely day’, and when they are gone you worry about what they know that you don’t. They once ruled your little world. I like humans much more. It is a shame that like the birds, humans too are destined to fade out until you are a scant memory of your former selves, and other, better creatures rise to take your place.
Try not to let this disturb you, dreamers, for it is the way of the universe. I will be here for you, chronicling your final moments until the very end of your kind. Your loyal host Nikignik will be here, waiting for your inevitable return to the Hallowoods.
Notes: The voice of Malcolm Rivera is the incredible Arron Holman, a queer content creator and host of the Eye 2 I podcast. Please tune in to hear creatives from all walks of life talk about their experiences. Arron also co-hosts the fantastic Two Gays Watch A Movie podcast. You can connect with Arron at @twogayswatchamovie on social media, or at @awholehuman.