Content warnings for this episode include: Abuse, Ableism, Animal death (Heidi as usual), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Religious Violence, Homophobia, Birds, Gun Mention, Static (including sfx), Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror, Life Support, Buried Alive
Intro - One More Ending
Your world is changing, which is nothing new. Each passing year of your life has brought fresh trials and new horizons, sharp new beauty and friends left behind.
You have walked desert sands and wound through wind-carved canyons. You have driven the tangled highways of the east, and sought out the complex truths hidden in the simplest of places, been a specter among specters. You had hoped, for a while, that this new residence would be your last - that like so many you have met, you could settle down. Find a groove to wear out for the rest of your days.
But as surely as the rain patters on the roof of the van where you sleep, as impossible to deny as the great black sky that drowns the city lights, you know that your world is changing again. In some ways, you always knew it was coming.
You close your eyes, and let the rain soothe you to sleep. In the morning, you will drive north, and begin a new life with the words 'Hello From The Hallowoods'.
Right now, I sit on a muddy shore overlooking a vast black lake. In the distance are a number of round buildings sculpted out of the marsh. A little closer is a great crowd of froglinkind, grieving and furious. And too close to the lake indeed is a single large toad, with a crown of skulls slipping from his head, as the water boils up like a high tide. The theme of tonight's episode is Orders.
Story 1 - Grug's Big Day
Please do not eat me, Grug thought, and prepared to be eaten. The swell of black water was a dozen times his size and growing ever larger, and She Who Lurks Beneath The World stared at him from within, with eyes like drowning-lights and thrashing barbels.
He said nothing out loud, as he did not want the others to think that he was weak. He was Grug, who could lift the most. Grug, who could flatten a mud bank with one slap of his big webbed hands. Grug, who was staring helpless at the edge of the lake just like the Drown-Priest before him.
The sound was not a sound at all - a gurgle of water in Grug's headbone, a rushing of tides in his earholes. She Who Lurks Beneath was speaking.
What's the big deal, she was saying. I can hear you from beneath the water, and I am trying to rest.
I am sorry, Grug thought in turn, and lowered his head to the muddy shore, felt the water plap against his broad forehead.
Get up, said the queen of storms, and the lake surged forward; Grug scrambled to his feet and the crowd took a leap back. She was huge now, undeniable, flashes of great fins within a wave so large it could wash away their village should it fall.
Explain yourself, said the sinker of a thousand ships.
Grug looked up; another mud-caked skull slipped from his head. He barely noticed. The terrible majesty before him was too much to take in.
The others are upset, he began. We did as you asked. We brought warspikes and battlesongs. We went to fight the pink-meats. But there were surprises. A great frogstabber, biggest ever. Loudkiller sticks from the west. And a King of the Forest. He spoke to me. Said we could leave if never come back. But still, the forest feasts on many froglin bones this morning.
A King? said the queen of tempests. Do you serve a king, Grug? Her barbels cut through the water like blades.
Grug blinked for a moment. Are you a king, he thought? It is you alone I serve.
I am not a king right now, Grug, the lady of the lake sighed, and flapped her gigantic tail. The great wave that held her rippled, threatened to burst. We will regroup, and we will try again.
It is not only that, thought Grug, and wrung the holy staff in his hands. The others hear the cries of the Queen-Mother, far south. They wish to follow her. To escape the Forest King. To leave Froglintown.
The goddess was silent in his head for a moment, but he could feel a tremble in his bones. The sky grew cloudy and dark, and the water around the great wave bubbled and churned, and her wall of water loomed closer to the beach. The crowd's cries of complaint turned to trills of fear.
They doubt me? she said in his head, and then a dozen of her eyes turned towards the crowd beyond.
You doubt me, foolish land-wrigglers? she roared, and Grug cowered, and looked back to the crowd.
He would have expected to find them all prostrate in worship, begging forgiveness conveniently out of biting range. But they were not. Some. Not all.
What are they doing, Grug thought, sudden cold terror running down his body like winter ice. If she is displeased she will kill only the Drown Priest, and that is me.
Even yet, many Froglins stood tall, as if basking in the sun. And the croaks they gave were not fresh pledges of fealty or cries for forgiveness.
It was a defiant song. A song that said, our mother calls us. We will follow. You have led us to death. We will not follow. Our mother will provide. We will follow. You will make us to war. We will not follow.
And then, one by one, the crowd began to retreat, scoop up their children and go for the trees in gigantic leaps. South, where the mother was singing. It was a song Grug remembered. It was a song he missed.
To leave is death, roared the queen of the drowned, and Grug turned back to face the lake - rain poured down from the sky, and the lake water bubbled higher and higher, washed over Grug's feet and poured across the banks towards the froglin village.
To stay is also death, sang the rebel froglins as they departed.
You will regret this betrayal, sang the tide-changer.
We shall see, sang the fleeing crowd. We shall see.
Grug looked between the furious queen, wreathed in a destroying storm, and the escaping froglins. What was a Drown Priest to do? She was going to bring her great wave down, and drown them all, destroy froglintown in one great collapse.
Stop, he sang, in his greatest loudest voice. He was usually so soft in his singing. Not today. The fleeing frogs, the terrified crowd, and even a few of the Deep Goddess's eyes turned to watch him.
We have been blessed, Grug continued, which was something he remembered the old Drown Priest having said. With the arrival of a great one. A queen. A goddess of the water. We are creatures of the water! It is right for us to worship.
We have lost good froglins. But many more froglins will be hatched when we rule every marshpond, every lakeshore, every wetplace puddle. And only She Who Lurks will make it so.
Grug finished his pleading melody, and sighed heavily, watched with wide eyes.
Some of the froglins continued to leave, fled through the pines into darkness. Good, he thought. They will protect our mother.
But many stood their ground, and slowly stepped forward, webbed hands raised, and joined Grug in the shallows, fell to their knees in the water.
"Lolgmololg," they sang. "Lolgmololg."
"Lolgmololg", sang Grug, and turned his eyes to She Who Lurks Beneath, and shook his stick of shells, sent a pleasing rattle with each beat.
"Lolgmololg", sang froglintown, and the goddess turned, and her great wave fell back into the surface of the water, drained away from their village, and the sky brightened.
You serve me well, Grug, thought the queen. There will be many gifts ahead for you. Grug looked down at the lady in the water, and with great terror and reverence, smiled from earhole to earhole.
Interlude 1 - Political Landscape
If you keep a keen eye on the political landscape of the Hallowoods region, there is a new development this season which it would be wise to take note of.
The greater Froglin community has been rent in half, with one group moving south to protect the progenitor of their clan, and half remaining at Froglintown to carry out the whims of a large fish whose favorite activity is lifting warm mud from the bottom of the lake to the top with her head, and watching it all float down again.
Sometimes she smacks the clumps with her tail, pretending that they are worshippers who have displeased her. She likes the way they burst through the water. Truly a leader worth following to the end of your days. What magnificence. What strategic planning. A true mastermind.
We go now to one who is not a mastermind.
Story 2 - Into The Blackbox
The most important part of being a security guard was body language. The attitude, really. If you project unshakeable, grim, and absolutely tougher than you, then it greatly discourages people from actually trying to fight you. Which, as a relatively peacable person, was what Marco preferred. And so it was 'hard as nails, smells napalm for breakfast' Marco who was dragged down the lofty metal halls of Box Cassiopeia by two security officers he had never met before. Behind him, Valerie and Riot were similarly escorted.
It could have been him, he thought, pulling Valerie Maidstone by the arm, if things had gone just a little differently. He wouldn't have betrayed the company without the Stonemaids reaching out... and he wouldn't have offered them information unless there was a future with Brooklyn worth fighting for. If he'd never been assigned to Lady Ethel's security detail for a chance flight to Box Polaris, he might not be here now - about to be sealed inside a Dreaming Pod forever. He knew the security here; the teams and drones and grid defenses and long-range lasers. He knew there was only one way out.
"Remember," he called back to Valerie and Riot. "Just follow my lead!"
"Doing pretty good so far!" Riot said, and was promptly elbowed by one of her guards - a move strictly against hostage transport protocols.
And then the metal hallway was gone, and they were through a door and into an expansive metal space, a grated floor suspended over an abyss of spindly mechanical arms and blinking lights.
Ahead of him was a huge black metal wall, with inset strips of glowing opalescent lights - the color of consciousness, the color of the Prime Dream. There was a Dreaming Vault on the inside of every Dreaming Box; an inner chamber that held a million Dreaming Pods securely, and no waking creature was allowed inside - only mechanical arms like countless great spiders, carefully organizing the dreamers collected within, removing the dead for disposal, transferring samples of genetic material so new life could begin. A million graves, he thought. A million caskets.
A million and three, counting the three metal caskets that stood on the edge of the platform, spouting wires and cables and tubes. The platform was lined with guards in shiny black armor and white-coated technicians, and above them all, the titanic Lady herself, wearing an even fancier fifteen-foot coat than usual.
"I wish I could stay for the whole thing," she said, and waved with a long leather glove. "But really once you're inside, all the diagnostics can take a few minutes, and I'm in a rush. My schedule has been a nightmare lately."
"Really?" said Valerie, kicking at the floor as the guards dragged her across the metal landing. "If I had the chance to lock you away for good I would clear my calendar."
"I know this will be hard for you to accept, Val, but there are some things in the world that are more important than you," the Lady sniffed. Her pleasant smile had vanished, and she turned to the technicians. "People, I have two minutes before I need to be in the dreamcast station. Please hurry this up."
"Give me my sword back and I'll fight you!" shouted Riot, and lunged for the guard that hoisted her belongings. "I'll fight you with my bare hands!"
"You don't have to do this, Ethel," Valerie said. "Please. For old time's sake."
"Old times?" the Lady laughed. "Val darling, the new times are right around the corner, and they are going to be so much better."
They were close now; only a few feet away from the Dreaming Pods, and Marco struggled to turn back enough to see the Lady.
"Wait!" he shouted. "I'll tell them. Everything about Box Polaris - the ghosts. The Riots. That people live outside and they're happy. Every little secret I can get my hands on. Unless."
The Lady paused; and crossed her arms expectantly.
"Or you can let them go," Marco continued. It was as good a chance as he was ever going to get. "Riot and Valerie. They're irrelevant to you now anyways, you know that. You need someone who can help you. Someone who knows your day-to-day. I'll stay. Forever. I'll be useful. And whatever you're trying to achieve, I'll make sure it happens. And I'll never say a word about what I've seen. That's my offer."
"You know," the Lady said with a little smile, "The moment that you wormed your way into Brooklyn's head, I should have eaten you alive."
Marco felt the world drain out from beneath his feet; his chest was as cold as the vault itself, and then the guards were on him, and with a mighty effort shoved him into the Dreaming Pod.
And then it was quiet. Almost soundless. The faintest muffled screams of Riot, as if she was a world away. He twisted in the narrow space; it was comfortably padded, and there was a little square window in the lid. He could see dark officers scuttling around outside, although no familiar eyes behind those polarized visors, and a last smile from Lady Ethel and the glint of her glasses. And then his world tilted up - up to the metal rafters high above, the passing mechanical arms like a spider wrapping him in silk, and a brief flash of light from above - maybe the sky, shining through some distant hangar door - and then with a gentle rush, only darkness. The dream impulse switched on, and Marco was asleep.
Marketing - Self-Promotion
This is Lady Ethel Mallory, with an important message for all of our happy dreaming family. You know me as the face of your formative years, the leader of the dreaming generation. It was my voice you listened to when you heard the words 'Dreaming Box' for the first time. It was I who welcomed you into our family, a lifetime ago or yesterday.
And most recently, we have overcome the disastrous Stonemaid rebellion together. But this movement only illustrates our need for more active control of the Prime Dream. That we need leaders who understand what our family is going through, and can respond appropriately. This could have been over so much sooner if there was not ten miles of red tape to cut for reform in management. What will we do when the next Stonemaids rise up? Will we be prepared?
I am about to say something shocking, but I assure you that I am totally serious. If we want change, we must fight for it, and I am beginning that fight today. I formally announce myself the new C.E.O. of the Botulu...
*catastrophic crash from outside*
Oh what now...
Story 2, Continued - Into The Blackbox
The sun is low and red.
The trees whisper endless names.
The soil sings of death and new beginnings.
The dead dream in hallowed prophecies.
And the dawn is of a world made new.
But yes, girl. Go get that promotion.
We return now to Marco Torres.
There was a dreamless white, and in it Marco thought of Devon and Mandy and Brooklyn. All his expected goodbyes had been reversed. But he wasn't going to get to wander the streets of a remembered San Fransisco with Devon, or fight through the Dark Gates of the Elemental Kingdom with Mandy. Because he wasn't going to be allowed to wander the Prime Dream at all. Not ex-security personnel. He was going in an echo chamber. A lockbox. A nightmare fed by your own fears, evolving by the second. And he was never getting out.
Then he was standing in a green field, long grass swept by the wind. A few bent trees cast shadows nearby, and the sun danced in their leaves. He glanced around. Was this an error?
"Hello, and welcome to the Prime Dream," said a voice, and he found someone standing beside him then - a girl with long blond hair and perfect teeth, and a spiked leather jacket. "And, uh. I don't know what comes after that. Make sure you know how the privacy settings work or you'll find out some weird stuff about your relatives."
"Do I... know you?" he said. "This isn't my dreamscape."
"It's mine," said the girl, and grinned, and cracked her knuckles. "And don't get too comfortable, because I'm your ticket out of here."
She clapped her hands, then, and Marco felt as if he was a puppet suddenly yanked by his strings; pulled immediately into darkness.
He woke up, and hit his head against the square glass window as he tried to sit up - there was movement outside, lights and mechanisms whirling past, and then a shudder that he was somewhat familiar with - the same uneasy feeling as a personnel carrier taking flight. There was an impact on one side of his coffin, and a horrible tilt, and suddenly he was upside down, and his view from the window improved dramatically.
His Dreaming Pod was being carried, although he could not tell exactly by what - if he had to guess, it would have been a Cluster, because he was a half-mile in the sky and there were more drones soaring up behind him. One of them clutched another Dreaming Pod in its great mechanical arms; although he could not tell if it was Valerie or Riot. Box Cassiopeia grew ever smaller beneath him, but a set of massive rotors rose up past his window, and a second impact rocked him into one wall of the Dreaming Pod; they were fighting mid air.
"Don't drop me!" he screamed. "Don't you dare drop me!"
An attacking drone scraped at his window with a buzz saw, and then apruptly went quiet; the light in its glinting eyes died and it fell out of the sky. He felt his pod shift again, and with a final tumble, his casket hit the ground, rolled several times to a stop. His world spun on the inside, and he slammed on the door with his hands.
"Let me out!" he cried. "Hello!"
He could barely hear sound from outside - voices calling, and mechanical clanging, and a thopping of helicopter blades. His little glass window stared out only on blue sky.
And then there was a face on the other side of the glass; one he recognized. Brooklyn Williams looked different, although she still wore her glasses. It was her hair, perhaps, no longer as constricted as it was for the offices of the Botulus Corporation. Or maybe it was her smile, which was rarely so genuine. She shouted something he could not hear, and he shouted something she could not hear in return. There was a loud crash, and the lid of his Dreaming Pod split off its rails, and he sucked in fresh air like a man returned from the dead.
"Brooklyn?" he said, sitting up - two more pods lay beyond; Valerie staggered out of one, and Riot peeled open a storage bin to retrieve her sword and satchel. "What on earth is going on?"
"You're getting rescued," Brooklyn said, and stepped over the lid, put two hands in his hair, and kissed him. She smelled more like diesel than usual. "You're welcome."
"Please save happy reunions for the chopper," called a voice, and Marco looked up to see a frightening woman in black body armor perched behind a piece of equipment - it might have been a sniper rifle, if it was for hunting giants.
"Are you the Stonemaids?" Marco said, as Brooklyn helped him up. "I'd just like to express how grateful I am for..."
There was a rush of air and a scream of rotors as a Cluster came racing over the bank behind him, and as he turned he could just catch a glimpse of its shining red eyes charging, buzz saw mandibles outstretched...
And then the woman in black fired her weapon, and a projectile like a tiny lunar lander went sailing over his head, latched onto the Cluster's angled face, and the great rotors died instantly. Marco ducked out of the way as the truck-sized drone sailed past him, and careened into the ground with a cataclysmic crash.
"Get to the chopper," the woman repeated, and lifted her weapon; it folded down into a backpack-sized bundle. She shouldered it, and went sprinting for the helicopter, which was spraypainted red over its original black chrome.
Marco said nothing more, and with Brooklyn and the Maidstones in tow followed her lead. There was no Lady Ethel to stop him this time, and he leaped up into the rear door, took a seat and a headset.
"Told you I had a plan," Marco said as the rest got buckled.
"Your plan sucked," said Riot.
"You have me and Danielle to thank for that," said Brooklyn, and reached across to shake Valerie's hand. "Hi Miss Maidstone. Nice to meet you."
"Cindy?" Valerie said, speaking into the headset. "Jeez, it's been what, twenty years? You look great."
The woman in black sat in the navigation seat up front, but Marco found a trace of a smile on her face. She reached back, then, towards Riot, and offered a battered MP3 player and a pair of twisted earbuds. Riot took them into her hands with a bit of shock.
"We've been trying to get a hold of you two for a while," Cindy said, and returned to the controls. "Welcome back to the land of the living."
"Where are we going?" Valerie said, looking outside as the world began to recede, and the distant storm of Botco's drones fell away through the clouds.
"Buckle up, everyone," Cindy said. "The day's only just getting started."
Interlude 2 - The Natural Order
There is no 'natural order of things', for life is by nature unnatural. Tranquil stones and barren ice wastes, perhaps, dead asteroids and dust-choked moons are the universe at rest.
But it is filled with life, and life is constantly remaking it. Roots grow up to overturn stones. Fish churn in the depths and move the silt with their currents. Humankind walks on the shore and decides to build a castle in the sand. And above them is life indescribable, forging suns and stars and souls.
Know then, dreamer, that the natural order is the one which you make. If a stone displeases you, overturn it. If the silt settles, stir it. And do not be afraid to build new castles on the shore, if there are none that seem yet like home. It is only sand. It is only half a universe without you to inhabit it. Order is a lie, for it was built like all else by revolution and change and life.
We go now to one who believes in order.
Story 3 - Lambs To The Slaughter
Mrs. Wicker knelt in the rough grass, hands folded in her lap, eyes closed. The wind rushed like victorious angels around her, pulled at wisps of her greying hair, and a pale sky loomed overhead. She heard the engines first - a dull hum of belching gasoline, but she continued to pray until she heard the little footsteps tromping towards her.
"Ma?" said Jedediah. "They're here."
Mrs. Wicker breathed out deeply, as if expelling demons of doubt and anxiety, and stood up, looked to her tousled blond-haired boy.
"Wait in the car with your sister," she said. "We're going to get your brother back today."
Jed scampered off, and she walked for the meeting grounds - a patch of sandy earth outside an abandoned research facility, a hundred meters from a treeline of towering black pines, a lofty wall that blotted out the horizon.
She glanced to the windows of the lab; people moved in the shadows inside. Her people. With luck, the battle would be over before it began.
"Incoming!" called a lookout from the side of a high antenna, and sure enough, the first of the Scoutpost's dented vehicles came rolling out from between the trees - a green truck, and a red rusted pickup, a black sidecar motorcycle, the great flatbed truck they'd used to move Frogsticker. There were only one or two of the many trucks and ATV's she'd sent out with the war party, though. She stepped out to the middle of the flats, with Fort Freedom's troops at her back, and the Scoutpost convoy came rolling to a stop on the other edge. She searched frantically for Jacob - caught sight of him in the back of the green truck.
"Jacob?" she cried. "Jacob, are you alright?"
Jacob descended from the back of the truck, and stumbled into view, leaning on a crutch just like Buck used to do. A swell of fire formed in her chest, then, tormented her like a swallowed coal.
"What have you done to my son?" she screamed. Distant birds took off from the treeline. The Scoutpost's diplomatic party had formed, now - Bern, one arm bandaged and a loaded crossbow propped in her other. Violet, limping along, with silver-haired Virgil helping her by the arm, a wide cowboy hat keeping the sun from his face. There was man with a bushy great beard whose name she did not remember, but there was something wrong with his eyes and beside him Buck leaned on a cane. And perhaps the most disturbing of all, a short man climbing off the motorcycle had an arm wrapped in tree bark - or maybe it was tree bark entirely. He looked as grim as if he'd stared on death, and one of his German Shepherds had dead eyes and jagged teeth.
"I can't guarantee your boy will walk perfectly again," said Violet, and nodded to Jacob. "Seems fair though."
"You're a cruel woman, Violet Keene," said Mrs. Wicker, and raised an arm for Jacob. "Jacob, come here..."
"Not quite yet," said Violet, and held up her hand. The Fort Freedom men unloading from the flatbed paused. "We're making a bargain today. All your people back safe, in exchange that you leave us and our forest alone."
Mrs. Wicker glanced to the riflemen camped in the lab windows, and back to Violet.
"Alright," she said, and nodded for Jacob to approach.
"I want to hear you say it," said Violet, a hand on Jacob's shoulder.
Mrs. Wicker nodded, and held her hand close to her ribs - all it would take was one signal, and Fort Freedom would open fire.
"Ma?" said Jacob, and she looked up. "I'm okay. Please. I just want to go home."
She stood for a moment on the precipice. All of the Scoutpost's leaders were so close, like lambs for the slaughter - but her boy was there too. She had a sudden terrible image of him caught in the crossifre, taking a bullet meant for the Keenes or the zombie dog, spitting up his own blood.
Or she could take her son and go home. What was it that compelled her to fihgt? Was it a desire for righteousness? Or was it her own pride? A sin in disguise?
"I, Kellyanne Credence Wicker, will accept our people back to Fort FReedom, and we will have no further dealings with the Scoutpost or your forest," she said. The words felt like a defeat, but Jacob sighed in relief, and smiled, and it was all that she required.
Violet and Bern looked to each other, and nodded, and Violet patted Jacob on the back.
"Go home to your mother," she said. Jacob limped across the middle of the clearing, and was followed by the remaining soldiers of Fort Freedom - husbands, sons, fathers, until only one remained. Buck, leaning on his cane beside the grey-bearded man.
"You said ALL of our people," she said to Violet. "James, come on home. There are many wounded to tend to, and we may even forgive your disobedience. You can start fresh in our eyes and the eyes of God."
"Buck," said the warped little man, and rubbed at his face. "No one calls me James but you, and I don't like it. I ain't going back with you, Mrs. Wicker. These folks are my people now."
"Buck," said Mrs. Wicker softly. "We still love you. The lord still loves you. You can run from us, but you can't hide from him."
"I ain't runnin' no more," said Buck, and straightened up. "I'm happy where I stand."
"You have your people, Kellyanne," Violet sniffed, and nodded. "Our deal is done."
"Ain't been much of a pleasure," Virgil said with a tip of his hat, and spat on the sand.
Violet turned to leave, and the Scoutpost's party climbed back into their vehicles, save for two - the bushy grey man muttered something to the one with the wretched arm, who stepped forward.
"Be glad," said the wooded man, with his german shepherds at his sides. "This ends well for you today. The next time you cross into our neck of the woods... we'll be ready. And it won't be as pretty. This place is protected by things you and I can't begin to understand. Now you know."
He flexed his hand of broken bark.
"Be seein' you."
The last two turned, then, and the Scoutpost was gone in a roar of engines, driving one by one into the trees. The forest seemed to swallow them whole, until there was no reason to believe they'd ever existed at all.
Outro - Orders
Do as you are told, dreamers, but told by very few. Who is worthy to be followed? Are their commands born of love or of hate? Do they speak of compassion or of fear?
I do as I was told by my old mentor in that I treat the power of dream with reverence. I do as I was told by my best remaining friend in that I am embracing the future, even if I do not yet see where it leads. And I do as I was told by an old love, that I am not to be ashamed of my passions.
I reject what I was told by the Industry, for I will not bow to the order of things. I reject what I was told by the guardian of suns, for I will change the heavens. And I reject what I was told by an old love, because I do not believe that anyone is beyond hope of redemption.
I know not all will accept it. I know not all of them can. But I have to believe there is good in people, no matter how buried in their pride and fear and conceit.
That is why I speak to you, dreamer, and to dreaming minds across this cosmos.
I speak of change.
Until the order is turned upside down, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting in line for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'A Little Different', 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!