Welcome Back

15 minutes read


“Sir, don’t you think it has been a minute since you instilled your presence on Hollow?”

The Conductor asked as he watched over Anodyne’s shoulder. Anodyne seemed oblivious to the Conductor’s remark. The Conductor leaned a little further over his shoulder to better understand what Anodyne was holding.

“Someone, you, my lord?” He said as he looked at a small locket in Anodyne’s hand, holding the face of someone the Conductor had never seen before. But just as the words escaped the Conductor’s mouth, the locket vanished, and Anodyne turned to face the Conductor.

“If you ever dare to mention this or to remember that face. You will find yourself suffering a worse fate than Xarius.” The words seemed to clamor out of Anodyne’s mouth. Eager to assault the Conductor, they raced forth and overwhelmed the Conductor with emotion. He fell to one knee reluctantly. Tears stream from his face and his cheeks flush red.

“My lord, I would desire nothing of the sort.” The Conductor said sincerely. His hands shaking from rage.

Anodyne looked past the Conductor across the empty valley where they stood.

“Do you hear that, Conductor?” Anodyne asked.

“Silence, my lord, bar the birds and insects of this fine valley.”

“I find it disturbing that that is all we hear. Are we not close to a town here?”

“Yes, sir, but only a small one. I don’t believe these Holites even bothered to name this one. It is but a handful of residents living in one of your original barricades. It seems that those forts have stood the test of time; you made them stronger than any natural wood. It is no wonder that all the current cities were founded from your forts.”

“It does seem that way; it feels to me that I have given them all too much. Maybe I should take some of it away.”

The Conductor grinned and stood, facing Anodyne. He gestured wide with one arm. Showing the way.

“After you, my lord. Let them know of how they have been living their decadent lives and how they should be humbled by your presence.”

Anodyne’s eyes shimmered blue for but a second as his feet lifted off the ground as if he were lifted by an unseen force. But it faded, and he returned to normal, looking at the Conductor with glee.

“I think you may be correct, my dear friend. I expect you to follow closely behind.”

Anodyne followed the Conductors’s wild gesture and started walking towards the town. The Conductor’s elation could not be hidden. His feet stamped into the dirt beneath his feet as his body failed to contain his excitement.

“It is beyond swell to have you back again, sire. You have been missed.”

The Conductor followed Anodyne as close as he would dare. Being more of a shadow than Anodyne’s shadow could hope to be. As Anodyne marched, the Conductor could feel the heat radiating from his body.

“Are we excited, my Lorde?”

“Excited? You know full well what I feel; you know this is rage. Why can’t I hear anything? Do I not do my best to provide these miserable Holites with entertainment? The nightmares that…”

Anodyne stopped walking and looked around intently.

“Ahhh.” The Conductor said as he peered around. “None of your nightmares are roaming. Where could they be?”

Anodyne turned himself and the Conductor invisible.

“We do this the old way; we observe first.”

Anodyne floated with the Conductor in tow. They both sailed through the air, clearing the tree line. They moved quickly across the landscape. The dead grass mixed with the thinned top of the trees as the image of everything blurred in their peripherals. But soon, the bleak browns and greys were illuminated with the orange, yellow, and red of fire. Anodyne slowed himself to a standstill.

“Are you impressed or enraged, sir?”

Anodyne looked down at the circle of fire that encompassed the sturdy wooden walls of the town below.

“Who knew fire could be used as a means of defense for a town of wood.” The Conductor looked towards Anodyne. “Just how strong did you make those walls?” He jested.

“Not strong enough to withstand fire, you fool. Besides, these fires are nearly a hundred meters from the walls. The thing that makes me most curious is how they keep the fires going.”

Anodyne slowly floated about the wall of flame as it licked at his feet. His nostrils flared as the smell from the smoke listed into his nose. He recoiled and moved through as fast as he could. Anodyne turned back to see The Conductor go through a similar process, a toothy grin turning to an awkward grin.

“That is not smoke like I know it, my lord.”

“No, it isn’t.” Anodyne stared at the small wooden fort laying just shy of a hundred meters into the halo of fire. The ground had a gentle gradient from ashen dirt to a dead scattering of weed, all the way to a vibrant green broken apart by small patches of turned dirt that housed small patches of life.

“Look, my lord, gardens.” The Conductor fell from the sky. Bile and blood streamed from him as his limp body descended. Colliding with a resounding thump that echoed much louder than it should have. Leaving a crater far larger than anything of his meager form could produce naturally. Anodyne looked down at the mangled form of the Conductor, then back to the strange firewall with its foul-smelling smoke.

“Now, this is interesting. I like this town.”

The Conductor’s bones slowly snapped together, his limbs twisting as his body realigned. The horrible sound of grinding bones and snapping of sinews continued until his body was whole once again. More vomit poured from his mouth like a fountain as he collected himself. His eyes continued to liquify and reform, and his tongue rotted piece by piece from his mouth as fast as it healed. He bit his tongue out, hoping to eradicate the seed of the rot. As the tongue healed back into place, he felt it remain whole. He started to breath heavy as the symptoms stopped. His body shaking as he found himself down on all fours struggling to see straight. Spiting the last of the filth from his mouth, he stood shaking.

“It seems, my lord, that I am only going to slow you down for a while. By your leave, I would like to rest.”

Anodyne floated towards the wall of the town, acknowledging the Conductor’s request by leaving him behind. Watching Anodyne fly away, The Conductor sighed and laid back into the ash and stony soil. Anodyne watched as the wall of the small town started to populate with bodies at the sound of The Conductor colliding with the ground. Anodyne floated directly overhead to hear the conversation of those standing just below him.

“I am telling you, I heard a noise.” Charlotte whispered as she looked out over their land.

Eyes rolling, Seb replied. “I am not doubting that there was a sound; everyone heard the sound. It was like a size five or six flying nightmare colliding with the ground. But I don’t see anything out there.”

“There,” Charlotte continued. “I don’t think that crater was there before. That is new.”

Seb looked out, squinting. “Oh yeah, but there is nothing in it.”

Anodyne grinned as they lifted the invisibility that was shrouding the Conductor.

“Let’s instill a little fear!” Anodyne thought to himself as he waited for those on the wall to react.

“Wait, I see some…one in the crater.” Seb said as he leaned closer, doing what little he could to get a better view.

Charlotte started to jump and flail her arms as she squealed. Grabbing onto Seb she shook him from side to side.

“What in the duality has gotten you so worked up?”

Charlotte brought Seb’s face close to hers as she smiled from her mouth to her eyes.

“It is The Conductor. He has returned, which means Anodyne has returned. The Duality is here; he has heard our prayers. We have so much to prepare!”

Charlotte ran down the stairs, down into her town. Screaming for everyone to wake while Seb stood on the wall staring towards The Conductor as he stood slowly, shaking off the last of the effects of the smoke. Propping his top hat back to normality and resting it on his head, turning to face Seb on the wall. Seb couldn’t help but smile, captivated by the moment he ran as soon as his legs would let him. Heading into the town.

“A smile?” The Conductor whispered to himself. “What is this town?”

“What indeed.” Anodyne said as he landed beside him.

“My lord?”

“It turns out we are not as hated as we thought we were. We may even get a little welcoming party.”

The two of them stood waiting for the rush of those from the town.

“But we have had many welcoming parties before; what makes this any different?”

“This time, it is an actual party. Or at least it seems that way.”

The Conductor dusted himself off, removing clumps of dirt from his suit.

“And to think the best I can present is the torn suit covered in filth.”

Anodyne patted The Conductor on the back, ushering him forward as he, too, started to walk.

“Your clothes are not what makes you. If they can’t see past your clothes, they don’t deserve to worship us. Despite their progress and innovation, if they fail to recognize you, they shall burn in their own flames.”

The Conductor stood taller, his back straightening as he let the remainder of the dirt reside on his weathered suit. A grin crept across his face as he felt strong under Anodyne’s words.

They walked in silence for the first few meters before The Conductor couldn’t hold back his excitement.

“What do you expect them to do? They already seem to be making quite a noise. Bells, screams, and, to be honest, I am not sure what…” The Conductor waited to hear a specific noise. “…That noise is.”

“That, my dear friend.” Anodyne said with a wide smile. “Is excitement and joy.”

“It is a strange way to express an emotion. It is very loud, none conducive to survival.”

“Look around you. There is no need to survive; these people are living.”

Anodyne stopped in his path as he heard a familiar song start to rise. The light of the town condensed into a single location, and the sound of marching was soon drowned out by the singing.

“My lord, that is your song, is it not?”

Anodyne was dumbfounded and stood in disbelief as he watched as a small parade of people marched around the corner of the town. Simple beats from drums made of animal skins and flutes made from their bones. All dressed in simple pants, shorts, or loincloths, they marched. As a choir, chanting the prayer of Anodyne.

“Be it day or night

You are the beacon of blight

The fear in our throat that we try to swallow

You are the true god of Hollow.”

Over and over, they chanted, beating their drums and playing their pipes. Children danced around as the adult’s chant grew louder. The children had masks made of bone. They wore tattered clothes and wielded weapons of torture. Skin flayers, gougers, injection daggers, bone extractors. They cheerfully chased one another and poked at each other in playful ignorance.

“I don’t mean to be too bold, sir, but should you not reveal yourself? They have done so much for us; do they not deserve a reward?”

The Conductor looked around sheepishly to see no sign of Anodyne. He smiled as he turned back to the marching masses.

“What have you got planned, my lord?” The Conductor whispered under his breath. Keeping an eye out for Anodyne’s next move.

The Conductor amplified his voice and let it boom.

“Greetings one and all. Your voices have been received. Your dedication to survive is admirable and has been recognized. Let your voices sing loud.” The Conductor’s arms raised to the air as the township chanted louder. “Your words are the flame in the night, a guiding beacon for Anodyne to follow. Do not let the splendor of your flame die because your voice tires. So chant, sing, strike the drums, and play your flutes. Children cry out, howl into the wind to let him know you are here.”

The children stopped running around and turned their gaze upwards, screaming into the air. Some removed their masks to make their howls sharper and louder. A certain resonance could be felt in the air; everything started to vibrate as rain started to fall in droves. The rain shook side to side as it fell into the turbulent air. Once again, the Holite’s voices grew louder as the signs of Anodyne started to reveal themselves. The rain turned to blood as the air turned arctic, freezing the droplets before they could hit the ground. The hail of blood fell hard, but the worshippers refused to stop, despite the pain they were being put through. Their own blood froze into long streaks as it met the air. The vapor from their breath created clouds of fog as the worshippers chanted. White frost formed on everything, creeping around the edges at first before emboldening and covering everything. The skin of the Holites reddened under the chill of the cold. Soon the flutists drew shallow breaths and choked on the air. The drums froze and shattered, and soon everyone was kneeling on the ground in pain and cold. Body shaking, bleeding, and rigid from ice. The thick vapor poured from their mouths as their vision blurred from the cold and the vibrations in the air. Bloodshot, the stronger ones managed to lift their heads to see a second pair of shoes standing next to The Conductor. The blood hail stopped, but the cold persisted; those who could look up to see Anodyne standing in his full glory.

His body scarred, eyes glowing blue, wearing nothing but blue tattered pants with his prayer written in Holite down one leg. His eyes were filled with fury as the wind swirled around him, air vibrating so intensely that his image was doubled in the Holite’s vision.

“Chant, sing. Worship or die.” Anodyne snarled.

Those who knelt before him struggled to their feet; leaning on one another, they toppled over and slid on the fresh ice. As each of them stood, they began to chant once again, weak and quiet but vocal.

Anodyne raised his arms out wide, floating off the ground so his feet were just above the heads of the Holites. Regaining enough willpower, one stepped forward towards Anodyne. Holding the palms of his hands towards his chest, fingers spread wide with his thumbs touching, he screamed.

“I fear.”

In one smooth motion, he raised his hands above his head, swiveling them at the wrist, his palms facing outwards with his small fingers touching.

“I bleed.” He screamed with his own blood frozen on his face.

Dropping to one knee, he bowed his head, his fists slammed into the ground to balance him.

“For you.”

One by one, the rest of the Holites committed to the same pose. Some chose to kneel in prayer, eyes closed and muttering under their breath.

Anodyne took this time to look at his acolytes. Their hands had been painted red, fading as it went up the forearm. Their necks were painted red, with it fading across their chest, where there was Anodyne’s prayer written upon their chests. Their eyes had a band of red which bled down to their cheeks. With the phrases, ‘I fear, I bleed’ written over one eye each.

Anodyne looked around intently, landing. We walked among them, and some started to weep, for they knew that if Anodyne wanted to, he would kill them in the most painful way possible.

“Your worship requires too many steps for the amount of hand you have.”

The Hoplites were scared, fearing they had offended Anodyne. Instead, they started writing on the ground in pain. Every single Holite screamed as a second set of arms erupted from their torso, sitting just below their original pair. They, too, came out painted like the original. Screaming in pain as blood and arms poured from their bodies, they gripped into the ashy soil. Once steady, they raised their hands to reveal the fingertips had turned black from the earth. Grinning, Anodyne’s eyes flared for a second.

“This is your new form. That paint is now your skin. Your fingertips shall remain black to remind you of all the pain you endured to become perfect. Now you can fear and bleed for me at the same time. You can bow and pray to me simultaneously. You are the perfect acolytes.”

The strongest of the Holites stood as soon as he could, his head spinning from the pain. Nauseous and ready to collapse, he raised his original set of arms into the high position for worship while he crossed the others over his chest. His second set was shaking as the new skin shivered under the intensity of the cold air. Standing as tall as he could, he began to chant, and his eyes rolled into his head. Revealing only the whites of his eyes, he felt as the words came out stronger than ever before.

“I fear I bleed for you.”

He repeated them over and over, screaming through a tired voice and an aching body. Others tried to follow, but they were still in too much pain or incapable of controlling their new arms.

“You are strong, stronger than most. Who are you?”

Eyes still white with hands in their positions, he answered. His voice warbled and cracked as he pushed through the pain.

“Arden. My life is yours; I’ll do whatever you need, my lord Anodyne.”

Andoyne’s smile cut his face in half as a myriad of ideas rolled through his mind.

“I have an idea or two. But it won’t just be you; I will need all of you.”