HFTH - Episode 94 - Milestones



Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Bert as usual), Violence, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Alcohol Use, Smoking, Life Support, Brain Death/Coma



Intro - Indomitable Slopes

To fly for the mountains was a mistake, one that you have never escaped. You were so full of hope when the expedition was commissioned—according to the library’s reports, locals had already begun to scale the first slopes, set up cabins and encampments, clear trees from wandering paths. And yet, what mysteries lurked in those indomitable slopes, concealed in fog-clouded heights, carried across the horizon by mountains that travel?


You assembled your crew, and set your instruments upon the heights—a difficult flight, following in the wake of the shuddering peaks. And yet, you drew close, and your heart leapt as it only does for scientific exploration.


But suddenly the instruments were screaming, and the mountains were like nothing you could have ever imagined, curling upwards to encompass the sky, and it all came howling to an end. But it has never truly ended, either, and you are still caught in their jaws, whispering into the sparking radio, bidding anyone who can hear you Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now, I sit in a rocking chair in the corner. The room it occupies is partially dead wood, and partially living. By the vine-covered window is a dining table with a checkered tablecloth, and two chairs—one with an old woman in it, and one with a small drum sitting on the cushion. The theme of tonight’s episode is Milestones.



Story 1 - Cold Spaghetti

“Please pass the pepper,” said Zelda, and watched Al with her hands folded.


It was a challenge, Al knew, and he focused intently on the shaker—it was in the shape of a lady with a dress, and interlocked with a similar lady full of salt.


He reached out his hand, and thought of how scared he’d been when he was hiding in the radio room with Russell while the Scoutpost fought, and how happy he was to have friends now. The little bones of his hand sparked like a birthday candle, and he could feel the pepper shaker, enough to push it slowly across the table. He looked up to Zelda excitedly.


“I did it! Just like that!”


“Good job,” Zelda smileed, and picked up the pepper, sprinkled some on her spaghetti. Al’s bowl held a little too, although he wasn’t hungry for pasta—he was never hungry at all.


“You’re learning and growing so much,” Zelda said. “I’m proud of you.”


Al burned a little brighter in the candlelight, and looked down, long-held thoughts bubbling to the surface.


“Grandma Zelda?” he said. “There was something I wanted to ask you about.”


“Oh yes,” said Zelda, and she set her fork down, chewing on her spaghetti with furrowed eyebrows. “You said it was something very serious, mm?”


“I think maybe,” he said. Outside, the sun was just vanishing over the top of the Scoutpost walls, a little earlier than it had before. “Someone came to talk to me during the big Scoutpost fight.”


“Did he have a green crown and talk all spooky?” said Zelda. “That’s just Jonah, you know. I think he’s turning into an angel.”


“It wasn’t Jonah,” said Al, and tried to set his hands on the table; they passed through.


“Did he carry lots of things in his pockets and complain about everything and smell like wet dog?” said Zelda.


“It’s not Hector either,” Al huffed. He was trying to be serious and she wasn’t. She was always joking around. “It was someone kinda spooky. They were birds.”


“Flamingoes, I hope?” Zelda mused, and sipped a little of a dark cordial.


“Crows,” Al said, and waved his hands through his bowl. “Or ravens, I can never remember the difference. But they invited me to go to a new school.”


“Which school would that be?” Zelda said, and set down her glass. “I don’t know of any others, and you’re just starting to make friends here. Cole’s not bullying you again, is he?”


“Not anymore,” ceded Al. “And I like Russell plenty. He looks out for me. But the birds-person said there would be kids like me at this school. Weird kids. That’s where they all go. To that school.”


“You’re not ‘weird’, Al, you’re just different. There’s lots of different kinds of kids.”


“Well, I feel weird,” Al said. She still wasn’t listening, not really. She wasn’t hearing him. “Even though the other kids aren’t screaming at me anymore. I can still feel them looking. I still know they’re scared. I’m the only one like me.”


“What’s the name of this school?” Zelda said, and rubbed between her eyes.


“They left a card,” said Al. “It’s in my drum.”


He moved as Zelda reached around the table, and pulled a copper card from the band of his drum. She turned a little paler when she saw it, and she set it down hastily on the table. Letters and patterns flickered across its copper surface, etched through the metal.


‘Downing Hill Public Library’, said the card. ‘Hello Al. Go North.’


“Have you heard of it before?” said Al.


“Yes,” Zelda said, legs shaking, and fell back into her chair a little, stared at the card. “My husband, Dex. He worked there for years.”


“Was he a teacher?” said Al.


“He told me he was a librarian, but god knows,” Zelda said, and reached out suddenly, put a cloth napkin over the card as if it was watching her.


“It ruined him, Al,” she said, and looked up at him. “That place makes monsters out of people. And I am absolutely not going to allow that to happen to you.”


Al looked down at a bowl of spaghetti he could never eat.


“I already am a monster,” he said. “Maybe it’s where I belong.”


Zelda reached out, and picked up the napkin and card together, folded it away into the pocket of her dress.


“It’s not happening,” Zelda said. “No card. No library. You’ll go to school here at the Scoutpost and you’ll like it. I don’t want to talk about this again.”


“I asked you to really think about it,” Al said, looking up; his hands were firm on the table edge, sparked like static electricity and burned the wood a little.


“I don’t need to,” Zelda snapped. “I know my answer. It’s no.”


Al threw his arms up angrily, and realized that in the heat of the moment they were solid; sent his bowl of spaghetti rolling across the table, knocked the pepper shaker off entirely. The lady in the black dress fell down to the floor and cracked into pieces, laid in a little pile of pepper. Zelda looked back to him, and he stared for a moment, eyes wide, and went invisible.


“Al, you come back here, young man,” she said, but he fled through the root-entwined wall of their cabin, hovered outside in the air for a moment. She was looking for him. Maybe it shouldn’t have mattered so much. But it did, in the moment. There were other kids like him. There had to be. And wanting to be with them was a different kind of hunger.


He drifted away from the window, moved for a room higher up in the Scoutpost, almost at the reach of his tether—the straps that wound around his ankle pulled tight as he reached it. But night was falling, and the dim lights were on in his sanctuary.


The room was new, but the radio was not, and neither was Russell sitting in front of it like a fascinated crow.


“Hi Al,” said Russell, although his only friend did not look up from the dials.


Al held up near the door, and would have blinked if he had eyelids. He was invisible still.


“How did you know I was here?”


“We’ve hung out a lot now,” Russell said, and looked back over his shoulder. “It kind of gets heavier when you’re around. Like it’s about to rain. I get goosebumps, see?”


“Yeah,” Al said, and hovered in closer. He came to rest in the dim light of the radio dials beside Russell.


“What are you listening to?”


“Not sure yet,” said Russell, and fidgeted with a dial. “I keep hearing something, but I can’t quite get it.”


He glanced up to Al, looked him up and down. “You okay?”


“She said no,” Al huffed, and put his arms over his knees.


“Aw,” Russell said. “Well, I’m sorry for you, because I know you really wanted to go. But I’m also a little glad? Because I like having you at the Scoutpost.”


Al nodded a little. “I like it more now that I have a friend.”


“Yeah,” Russell said, and went to punch him in the shoulder; the hand clipped through his body. Russell leaned in conspiratorially, as if afraid the radio might hear. “Besides, that little card gives you the directions, right? We could always go see the place at least.”


Al lit up in spirit and in brightness. “Really?”


“Don’t see why not,” Russell shrugged. “If it would make you feel better.”


Al began to say something, then—but the radio spoke first. Distinct words, even if scrambled with static.


“...Scoutpost, come in. I repeat, Scoutpost come in. This is Cindy Lockheart, and tomorrow…”


The signal disappeared into garbled noise again.


“This is the Scoutpost… well, Scoutpost Two,” said Russell, clicking on his microphone. “Please repeat your message.”


Al knew the next voice on the radio as a girl who had once hauled his drum out of a burning house, and introduced him to a whole new life.


“Time to wash the sheets and toss the salads,” said Riot, “because we’re coming home, and we’ve brought company.”



Interlude 1 - Tourist Attractions

If asked which sights in the Hallowoods are worth seeing on a brief visit, I would remind you that rarely is a visit to these woods brief, and that everything is worth seeing.


In every pine cone, every sliver of tree bark, every black needle I find poetry and splendor and the artistry of a great master. But I am more easily fascinated than most.


I would direct you to stunning natural wonders, pines that listen, trees that watch, and mountains that travel across the horizon like thunderclouds rolling across the forest.


In the Northmost Woods there are colors that no one has yet seen, colors pulled from the ancient days of space and remembered only by dead civilizations, reborn in the leaves and shimmering mists. They may be beyond human sight, but know that they are beautiful nonetheless, and the beings that wander in those distant reaches remind me of our early days, and the heavens I used to watch.


There are artificial landmarks here, too, brought in one form or another by the people who have come to call it home. The Spirit Sky Observatory reflects all the cosmos, and shelters the Ascended Scientists with their unfathomable instruments.


The Museum of Broken Promises rolls through the forest like a steam train on a mission, and carries with it the least remembered tokens of a bygone age.


The Downing Hill Public Library, with its great stone lions, keeps watch over a forest that crowds it more every year.


And until recently, the Resting Place Hotel would have been the best lodging for you to stay in while you visited all these sights, but it is no more, flickered out of existence like a dying light. We go now to one who still mourns it.



Story 2 - A Place To Rest

The Countess dwelt in shadow, and she was shadow, suspended in a pitch-black space between two halves of a shattered church tower. It was a poor substitute for room 104, but then again, the world was a poor substitute for one with Barb in it.


The tangled stone reminded her of her earliest days, nestled in the scaffolding of Austrian castles and the cathedral rafters of Germany, chimneys in Prague. And as she had then, she seethed, and wallowed in a whirlwind of night within the belfry, and waited for the wind to carry a scent.


And it did, from miles away. The blood of Starwolves was like a rich mead, liquid honey, and immediately the Countess was out of the fallen church and into the dusk air, a storm of bats, of daggers, of streaking arrows of darkness. She was one with the starless sky, and the flight was as vehement as her still heart, and she crossed the miles in a matter of moments, the distant sound of blood in sun-drenched veins louder with each breath.


I am torn asunder and bled dry, a husk again, she thought. I will make you the same.


She peeled out of the night like an avenging angel, spread wide the void-wings from her waist, and dove like a bird of prey with shadowed talon fingers outstretched.


The starwolf had landed upon the sprawling moors in Barb’s damaged convertible, one he would never have allowed anyone to drive. The demon and the metal behemoth and the hallowed gull were just stepping out, and the wolf was small, human, jewelry glittering in the twilight sun. Vulnerable. This might be over quickly.


The Countess swept her up in an instant, dug her claws into the wolf-woman’s shoulder, and as Yaretzi began to thrash, dragged her across thirty feet of rocky lakeshore, and then was pulled down to the earth as the wolf grew too heavy to lift. She rolled with the starwolf against the jagged rocks of the moormire, but she was already as close as she needed to be.


She dug her talons deep, and held her fangs inches from the great wolf’s neck, ready with a bite to feast on starlight, pump numbing shadow into her veins, forever still those thrashing limbs that were gripping around her…


But not crushing her, the Countess noted, a breath away from a deadly bite.


Holding her.


The pressure, the darkness of her fur reminded her of her first haunts—cramped little nests, roosts behind hay bales in farmhouses.


“I asked you not to kill him,” the Countess breathed, and dug in her claws a little more, felt them purchase through the Starwolf’s hide.


“I am sorry,” said the wolf, a rumble against the Countesses’ entire body.


“Sorry?” the Countess said, and slammed a fist of knives against the Starwolf’s neck, dragged it down to open up little scratches of gold in her skin. “You’re sorry? He was my only friend. For centuries. And I can smell his blood on your breath. He wanted nothing to do with your war, you hateful beast…”


The Countess trembled, and the wolf exhaled, but did not strike back despite the scratches.


“I have left that war behind too,” said Yaretzi. “This was not why.”


“Yaretzi? Are you alright?” the one called Mort shouted from across the bank.


“Yes, are you getting eaten? It’s hard to tell,” called Polly.


“I am alright,” the wolf returned. “Give us a moment.”


“Why did you kill him, then?” the Countess said, watching the veins pulse beneath the surface of fur in Yaretzi’s neck. This could be over so quickly.


“He gave me his heart,” Yaretzi growled, with infuriating calm, “so that I might wake. If he had not, I would sleep beneath the shores of New York City, and my friends would be dead.”


“He did not,” the Countess said, and watched the wolf wince as her claws shifted. “Barb didn’t care about you. He didn’t care about anyone. You dare to look me in the eye and lie?”


The wolf said nothing, and the Countess blinked away tears of black blood, withdrew her talons from Yaretzi’s skin.


“He was like me,” the Countess said, fighting the wolf’s arms off with her wings. “A survivor. But if he did give a damn about anyone besides himself, it would have been me. I was as close to family as he ever had. He wouldn’t throw all this away for some strangers he met this spring, for a demon-murdering animal like you. That wasn’t who he was. Do you know how ludicrous you sound?”


“He had a heart,” Yaretzi said at length. “Ill-used, perhaps. But not all gone. Not all rotten. I do not know why he saw fit to do this. All I know is that I am grateful to him for it, and I am sorry for you, for I suspect neither of us are a stranger to losing families.”


The Countess sobbed, then, a noise which surprised her, and she buried her head against Yaretzi’s neck, far away from the world, and tucked her great wings against the wolf, and lay there for a long moment. It was strange how you could feel like you were suffocating, even when you didn’t need to breathe.


Yaretzi did not move her; placed a tentative paw on the Countesses’ back until the heavings had passed. She did not feel like a Countess; she was a peasant girl again, stoned and bleeding out, staring up at a starless sky, dead and empty and cold.


“Why have you returned,” the Countess said quietly. “If it is to inform us about Barb’s death, you didn’t need to. We knew the moment the Resting Place disappeared. Everyone’s scattered.”


“To apologize,” said Yaretzi, a tremble like an earthquake. “And if you will refrain from trying to kill me, we intend to honor his legacy.”


“What?” the Countess said, and pushed up with her wings, looked down at the great wolf woman. “How so?”


“If you two are, ah, quite finished,” Polly said from the distance, leaning on a garish umbrella, “Let’s get to business, shall we?”


He lifted his umbrella, and as it opened, sparks of flame appeared at the ends, twirled as the arms did, and then with a great leap of fire, a storm of light descended on the marsh, bursts of reds and pinks and greens lighting up the twilight sky for miles…



Marketing - Pull The Plug

Lady Ethel Mallory:

Away from microphone: Script? No, I’ll be fine. Seriously, I’ve been doing this for longer than you’ve been alive. Just let me work.


*ahem*


My dear happy dreaming family, whom I adore as I always have, hello. I’m Lady Ethel Mallory. You know me. But let’s have a real conversation here for a moment.


Was my last address not enough? Because even though my voice is on every channel all the time, you would think none of you listened. My office is getting bombarded with messages, and these nasty movements are cropping up left and right, no doubt secretly funded by Melanie Flores.


Melanie. Darling. I know you’re jealous but this is getting out of hand. Who do you think you are? You have worked your whole life to become an understudy in a department I practically founded. Do you think the Botulus Corporation was going anywhere in the 2010’s, with a product no one could even describe? Oswald certainly wasn’t going to be selling at the tech conventions. When he came to me I agreed because I sensed opportunity, and I took what I knew and I made this company great. Now all I ask for is a little bit of my reward.


I took a nation of bickering idiots and I made them our customers. Did whatever I had to do. The stupid talk shows and the sponsorships and the product placement and the advertorials, and it finally paid off because we own the world. All I ask now is for a little control over what I’ve built, and you think you can stand in my way, Mel?


You couldn’t keep the Maidstones from escaping a secure Dreaming Box. You can barely write a decent press release!


You think you have what it takes to be a marketer? To control power and brand and message for a company the size of a nation? It’s so much more than ad campaigns and copywriting.


You need to be able to make hard decisions, terrible decisions. The balance must always be in place. There must be conflict to capitalize on. And if you need to disable a Dreaming Box for a few minutes to stoke the fires, then you pull the plug and…



Story 2, Continued - A Place To Rest

*whistles as if to say, I'm not sure what's happening there but it isn't pretty. In fact I almost feel bad. Almost*


We return now to the Countess.


The Resting Place Hotel was once a little lodge and gambling den with flickering bulbs and neon lights on the outskirts of Las Vegas. It had likely belonged to a soul as stained as the bathroom tiles, but the Countess was not there for that. She arrived when its dead shell had become home to an old friend. The mourning was over, and Barbatos, now without eyes but with the same old smile, was ready to think about the future. That was what the Resting Place had always represented, for her. Making the best of a bad situation.


And when things tanked and the prying eyes of the Botulus Corporation started following the misfits they accumulated, he abandoned the shell entirely, and in a whirlwind of stolen fire, opened a location all his own in an area not yet known as the Hallowoods.


In short, the Countess had been part of the Resting Place and its community in one way or another for nigh on a hundred years, and nothing could replace it in her heart, any more than they could replace Barbatos.


Even so, she thought, he would have liked the Grand Crossroads Hotel.


It was a much larger building, with a dusty red exterior of art deco pillars and palatial stones. It would have been more at home in the Alps than the sweeping mires, and its dark windows were like empty nesting-holes for bats and sparrows.


It was no less a work of art on the inside, with painted ceilings and baroque chandeliers, vaulting over halls of marble tile and ornate carpets. Staircases swept from either side of the lobby into the rooms above and beyond—demons and their grand entrances, the Countess thought. Always desperate for extravagance.


And yet, she could not begrudge Polly as she stood in the corner of the foyer hall, which was strung with lights and carnival flags. A dead seagull crowed from the top of the chandelier, and beneath it was a gathered sea of old guests and friends; the Quilt and Dimes in a neat vest, warlords and fishfolk, ghouls and gourd-walkers. Polly stepped onto the lobby desk, a martini glass in hand.


“Ladies and gentlemen, wizards and wolves,” he said, and the assembly grew quiet; even the jukebox in the hotel bar slowed to a low pulse. “This party is for the devil Barbatos, who was a terrible landlord and absent hotel manager.


He served you bad drinks. He cheated you at cards. He trapped you in decades-long bargains. But despite all of this, he fostered a community. Everyone needs somewhere to fall when they’re cast out of heaven. And although the floors were always sticky, and there was never mint for mojitos, he provided it for all of you.


So the party is for him, and the hotel is for us. For we who have no other home. I hope you will find its halls welcoming…


...you. There in the back. Zorgelleck? Please put that man down. Thank you…


...all this to say, however you find yourself here, welcome to the Grand Crossroads, and please don’t ruin my carpets.”


There was a cheer from the crowd, and a host of glasses raised, including the Countesses’ own cup. Polly hopped down from the counter and disappeared in a flume of fire, to another cheer from the crowd. The Countess sighed. Things changed so fast over centuries. Too fast for her liking.


She found Polly standing by her elbow, watching the party.


“I don’t believe the carpets will last the night,” he muttered.


“You’re burning a lot of fire to make this place,” the Countess said, and looked at him. “And no matter how much you’ve hoarded, it won’t last forever. You should be careful.”


“I am,” Polly said, and tapped his umbrella on the floor; the metal arms stretched and straightened, and the ‘I love New York’ graphics flickered into a more dignified black. “But I’ve talked with Dimes, and taken stock. We have what was left of Barb’s trove, and what I pulled from the veins of Rick Rounds, and a fair bit I nicked from Typhon’s cane collection. I think I can afford it a little while at least.”


“It is beautiful,” the Countess said, and looked over the crowd. Yaretzi wore a black suit, and her thick hair back over her shoulders, and danced in a style the Countess had never seen before. Mort lumbered through the crowd, a hotel cap resting on top of his glass dome.


“You’re not going to join them?” the Countess said, and sipped her glass, felt it stain her lips.


“I haven’t the sense of rhythm,” Polly sighed, and nodded to her. “Want to join me on the roof?”


The Countess was familiar with the view; the Moormire stretching off in each direction, a maze of winding lakes and black trees. The high border of the forest had crept closer on the horizon, though, and the stars were blinking awake between the clouds.


“I hope the new room is to your liking,” Polly said, and pulled a cigarette from the air, breathed on it to light the end.


“It’s luxurious,” said the Countess, and pulled her wings tighter around her shoulders, a shelter from the breeze. “It’s funny how many of the little details are the same.”


“Well good, I suppose,” Polly said, and inhaled embers, breathed out smoke. “Although I’m not sure how similar to him I want to be.”


“Oh he was wretched,” said the Countess, and set her glass down on the stone parapet, and extended a glove to Polly. “But we were wretched together, and that made the future bearable. Have one of those to spare?”


“I don’t know quite what the future looks like,” Polly said, flicking another into existence, already lit. She fit it into a long cigarette holder, and raised it to her lips. The flavor was dark, reminded her of the smoke-filled card rooms of her gambling days. “But you, and Dimes, and the Quilt, and the rest… you’re welcome here. And if you don’t know where you want to go, you’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”


“Thank you,” she said, and inhaled, set the end of her cigarette to glow. Here’s one for you, Barb, she thought. “I’ll stay. Not forever. But for now. Eventually that forest out there? It’s going to consume everything. It’ll crawl across this landscape until it reaches the Botulus Corporation, and it will take time, but eventually it will win. This world isn’t forever.”


“It’s for now,” Polly said, and smiled, horns flickering. “I’ll enjoy it as long as it lasts.”


The Countess nodded, and took a long drag, and breathed out smoke into the misty landscape beyond.


“As long as it lasts.”



Interlude 2 - Move On

It is common advice to move on. Surely you should have moved on by now. Do what it takes to move on. Move on. Move on.


In theory, certainly. Life is ever evolving. Ever changing. To keep pace with it, to be open to the future and all it will bring, we must change too. I understand the logic.


But I do not feel it. I do not know how. I have done everything, I feel, that you can do. I have wallowed in my grief, hidden in shadows and shut myself off from the universe, hoping that silence would heal me, that if I closed my eyes to the stars, no one would see me weep. Looking back, I do not think this helped me.


But in embracing my past, all that I have been through and all that I have lost, I do not find peace either. I find rage and anguish and bitter regret.


I remember what it was like to be destroyed. The recollection sickens me, poisons my spirit, for I once lived in a cosmos with him in it, and now I do not, and never shall again. There is only dread and destruction over the hysterical precipice of remembering that.


And I have tried, most recently, as my friend Xyzyikxyz suggested, to be quiet. To contain my grief politely, and shuffle on as though nothing ever happened. But this is exhausting. To carry a hidden weight, unspoken and so terribly heavy.


I do not know what to do, dreamer. I am beginning to suspect there is no beautiful way to leave behind the things I have lost. That it is only a broken, twisting path that grows a little smoother, a little less harrowing with each mile that passes beneath me. But I am still far, so very far, from the end.


And I still mourn.


And may, until the stars burn out entirely, and the universe joins him in nothingness, be mourning.


We go now to one I loathe.



Story 3 - Humble Origins

Lady Ethel Mallory sat in the darkness of her chamber, and examined her hand. The room was lightless, but that was not an obstacle for her anymore. It was strange to think that her fingers were once small and tan, with nails you could paint and manicure.


Do the years make us all grotesque, she wondered? Or is it just me, cracking at the joints and stretching out of shape?


She flexed her hard-shelled digits, sighed at their spots and jagged ends, and reached for her glasses. Oswald beckoned, and she had to find a way to interpret the recent nightmares, put the frightening present into terms that were comforting and sensible and hopeful for the future quarter. And quite possibly, negotiate for the power she’d sought for decades.


The light of the Prime Dream embraced her as she fell asleep, and she began towards the great board room at the top of the Botulus Building.


But something shifted, a mote of external control, because when the dream stabilized she did not sit at a stone conference table but at the kitchen counter in her childhood home. The smells of a New Mexico trailer park overtook her, and she glanced around—there was no sign of her mother or sisters. Only a tired looking man in a pinstripe suit, leaning on the counter beside her.


“It’s interesting, you know,” said Oswald. “My humble origins are all over the news. They preserved the Botco Family Farm, actually. Made a tourist trap out of it. But you’ve kept yours on the down low.”


“This wasn’t the venue I was expecting for such a significant conversation,” the Lady smiled, and looked down to make sure that her appearance reflected beautiful Lady Ethel, powerful business leader, and not the child who had clung to this shipwreck of a home.


“Well, I thought a change of scenery would suit us,” Oswald said, and stood up straight, began pacing the kitchen. “I think it’s healthy to revisit our origins once in a while. Reflect on how much we’ve been given.”


“And we’ve been given a fair share of troubles this week,” Lady Ethel began.


“Troubles?” Oswald said, and picked up a family photo. “Spoken like a true marketing major. We have not been ‘given troubles’, Lady Ethel Mallory, we have created catastrophes. Public embarrassments to the company. Decades-long damage to our brand reputation. We are dealing with far more than troubles.”


“Would you permit me to explain…” she began.


“The Valerie and Riot business doesn’t bother me,” said Oswald. “Even though they’ve slipped away from this company two, three times? They were going free in the end. But the breaches in security are shaking my confidence.”


“What do you mean, ‘going free in the end?’” said Lady Ethel, and she stood as well, leaned on the kitchen island.


“The method you gave me was incomplete,” mused Oswald, and set her family photo down with a frown. “It’s unlikely you knew that, although not impossible. But I’ve managed to get what I need to make it work, and that information came at a price. The Maidstones get out of jail free.”


“You realize they are important,” smiled Lady Ethel, and tapped her nails on the countertop. “Two generations of rabble-rousers who are not happy with your exit policy have made those two into icons. They look to them like peasants look to popes. If they don’t return to the Prime Dream, it’s going to tell everyone that you can get free, and every sixteen to forty-five year old is going to wonder how it’s done.”


“Which is something you’d enjoy, I expect,” said Oswald, and closed a drawer in a hall cabinet, looked up to her in the sun-streaked hall. “This has all been a game to you. One for the Botulus Corporation, one for the Stonemaids. Nurturing a crisis.


You were right to do it, most likely; I doubt I’d have continued to keep you close if you didn’t seem like the key to solving our mounting public relations problem. You’re just frightened now because the pawns are out of your control again, and you may not be able to rein in the firestorm you’ve created in my customer base.”


Lady Ethel looked out the window, chewed on her lip, tried to stop the surge of anger rising in her from finding its way out.


“If you’d approved me for higher management,” she said, “none of this would have been necessary. We are in desperate need of policy change if we’re going to keep our customer population intact. New people are not finding us like they used to, Oswald, for all the advertising.


Returns are diminishing, and some people are having children in our Dreaming Boxes, but not enough. Why would they, when they can dream families that don’t actually ask them for anything? Our dreaming population is declining year over year.


If we removed the consent portion of our advertising outside, we could save the people who won’t admit they need to be saved. But you won’t accept that... you’re too busy with your pet projects to confront the truth.”


“Did you just call my son a pet project?” Oswald said, with a wry smile beneath his mustache. He moved to circle the kitchen island again, like a shark. “He’s not. He’s the key. Operation Winston is about getting a stable human soul to dream. If they can dream, they can enter the Prime Dream. And if we can pull that off, it changes the game for everyone forever.”


“What are you talking about, Oswald?” she said, gave up on tracking him as he moved. “You’re chasing ghosts when we have a company to run.”


“It’s the survival of our species, Lady Ethel,” said Oswald, and put his palms on the counter, stared at her with an excitement she had not seen in him in years. “No one dies. Lifetime value of an existing customer becomes potentially infinite.”


“You would... kill our customers,” Lady Ethel said slowly. “Keep them plugged in? Do you understand how unhinged you sound? This is why I worry about your ability to lead this company...”


“It’s a lurid concept, at first, but let it grow on you,” said Oswald. “Do you remember when I first showed you what the Prime Dream was? What we were capable of? We’re on the verge of reinventing this company again. And I’m asking you to trust me, one step further.”


“What would that be?” said Lady Ethel, and rubbed her temples. It was too quiet here. It was never this quiet when she was growing up.


“The Atlas Biggs Rocket is a success,” Oswald said, “and our dreaming tech conclusively works in orbit. The barrier to interstellar travel has always been time. Resources. Keeping people alive long enough to reach new worlds to colonize.


But ghosts don’t eat. They don’t age. They don’t die. Twice, anyways. And they could comfortably be part of the Prime Dream for the centuries it would take to reach a new world. One that isn’t infected. A new garden of Eden. That’s what my pet project is about, Ethel.”


“You’re really going to go through with this,” she said, searching for any irony in his face. “This isn’t why we started this company. It was about extracting value. Saving customers. A happier end.”


“I started this company. I hired you,” said Oswald, and frowned. “Were you thinking of a ‘happier end’ when you and Anderson got together and woke up Box Aries?”


“Yes, actually,” said Lady Ethel, and breathed. Despite all she’d heard, now was the portion she’d rehearsed, and it was time to perform. “It was necessary. The Stonemaids hadn’t done anything egregious yet, and I needed them to be seen as a real threat. So I woke them up. Briefly.


But I didn’t know, Oswald, what had happened to them. They were supposed to go back to sleep half an hour later like nothing ever happened. A publicity stunt. I didn’t know they had changed. And yes, we couldn’t send them back in ready to share the news that we can’t protect our own customers, that black water is dripping through every Dreaming Box in America, growing rampant in our Dreaming Gardens. It was a mistake.


“Did you ever stop and think of asking me before starting a civil war in my company?” said Oswald, with none of his usual humor.


“The war was already there,” she said firmly. “Like a wildfire, about to grow. So I took control. Told it where to burn. And was a version of myself hateable enough that the Stonemaids would have someone to rally against.


Do I want more control in this company? I think it’s necessary. But ultimately, Oswald, if you look at what I have done, despite the methods, it was always in service to this company and delivering on its full potential.”


“After everything,” said Oswald. “At the center of your web of lies. That’s what you expect me to believe.”


“Yes,” she said. “It’s the truth. Melanie and Anderson and Velma and the rest can’t dream of the devotion I have for this company. For you.”


“And you want to lead the Botulus Corporation’s terrestrial operations?” he said, a corner of his mouth twisting into a tired smile. “While I manage our Space Line and Operation Winston?”


Lady Ethel nodded, a flutter of her old excitement, the light she’d felt when she first put on a dress, nestling beneath her ribcage. “Yes. Yes, Oswald. More than anything.”


Oswald grinned, and clapped his hands together.


“Lady Ethel Mallory, you have served my company well over the last many years we’ve worked together. Thank you for that. It’s been an educational ride with you.


But you are also conniving, and duplicitous, and your time of usefulness to me is long gone.


Effective immediately, you are fired from the Botulus Corporation.”



Outro - Milestones

Milestones. I find it easy to forget how far I have come. Especially in this form, where I exist as a being of energy and dream and thought, it is easy to get lost in the narratives I behold, and lose myself entirely for a time. Perhaps I prefer that. Perhaps I spend too much time in the nothingness of audience.


And yet, when I retrospect, I have come so far. I have played in the stellar nurseries in the orchard at the center of the universe. I clung to worlds in the making and ran in fields of young stars. I sat by the gates and watched for danger in the heavens, spoke loudly to ward them away. I have lain in meadows and valleys of the cosmos yet unseen by your telescopes.


I have been whole; I have been broken. I have loved deeply and lost deeply. I am always unmaking myself, and I am always piecing myself back together, and finding in the process the strange aeons of memory that make me who I am.


Until the words disappear from the mile-markers of the past, and the paths I have wandered are forgotten, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting momentously for your return to the Hallowoods.




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