Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Dogsmell as usual), Death + Injury, Blood, Mushroom related gore, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs, Body horror (the mushroom horrors continue)
Intro - Further From Youth
You were young, once. All things are, but your youth is farther from you than most. You were ancient, deathly and impossibly large, but when that spore broke off you were born again, adrift in the cosmic winds. Oh, what sweetness! What bliss! The freshness of a universe awaking as if after a new rain… and your joy was not despoiled when you came to call the firm earth home.
And so you sunk your mycelium into the soil, wrapped your hand around the heart of the planet, and waited. When did your zeal for life disappear? The withering, the cynicism, the decay, when did that begin?
Was it when the Wheel died? When his heart was buried? When humanity unmade themselves? Or was it the creeping rot, the seeping rain, the damp that whispers in your forgotten soul, “Hello From The Hallowoods”?
Right now, I’m sitting in an office. The furniture is almost a hundred years old, give or take a few decades, and the professor seated in the study chair feels as though he is too. The girl on the other side has seen ages of her own pass and fade away, and tonight she stares into eternity. The theme of tonight’s episode is Centuries.
Story 1 - An Investment
“Absolutely not,” said Professor Henry O’Connor, and leaned back with his arms crossed. He regarded Clara with a dismissive tranquility; she did not break eye contact, remained calm. Denial was the first step to getting what you wanted.
“It’s your job,” Clara said, hands folded in her skirt. “You’re a Professor of Cosmic Economics. If anyone should know about how all this ghost stuff works, it’s you. Isn’t that what you were so interested in the day I showed up here? My capabilities? How useful I can be? I could be so much more if you would just help me fill in a few gaps…”
“I was,” O’Connor sighed, and stared at her with his colorless eyes, rubbed at his face, which bristled with grey stubble. “And you have excelled. You are already at the top of your classes, and moving along in the curriculum at a reasonable pace…”
“It’s not fast enough,” Clara said, and stared back, tried to rein in her frustrations. “I feel like we’re still covering basics in class. Concepts like what a ghost is, or why a ghost is. That’s what I already know. What I need to know is why I can see them.”
“Because you carry blood from a covenant,” O’Connor said factually. “You know this. It’s a gift.”
“A gift from who?” Clara said, searching his face for a sign of weakness.
“Miss Martin, I understand your curiosity, but I cannot indulge it,” he said, and clapped his hands on his desk. “You are delving into advanced topics. We study the fundamentals because they are…”
“A strong foundation,” Clara finished, and shifted in her chair, furrowed her brows. “For the others. Sure. But I already know them. I feel them. They’re my gift, like you said. I need to start learning the big picture stuff. It’s important.”
“Why is it important?” O’Connor said, concern crossing his brows. He was no simpleton either, she knew. She tried to act as though she had not betrayed anything.
“Because they’re part of me,” she said. It was a line of logic that was tenuously true. “It’s important to me. The more I know about where this sight, these powers came from, the more I understand myself. Know how I can help. What I’m here to do.”
“I see,” O’Connor said, and crossed his hands under his chin. “I wish I could help, Clara. But the secrets you are so desperately scratching for are deadly. And the names you’re seeking are best not said aloud. I cannot help you to…”
“Syrensyr,” Clara said, so suddenly it surprised herself. O’Connor turned a shade paler, jolted in surprise.
“Who taught you that?” he said.
“Friday, before she left,” Clara said quietly. She looked up at him over the desk. “Who is Syrensyr? What does that name mean?”
“Was that the Binding Stone? It’s supposed to be in the archives…”
“I’m trying to ask you a question,” she said, and sat up, put her hands on the desk edge. “I’ve seen things. I had a vision when I touched it. And I don’t know what I saw, but I feel like it was important. Please. This means so much to me.”
O’Connor sighed, like an ice shelf finally falling into the ocean, and he slumped in his chair, rubbed at his eyes.
“Please,” she whispered.
He looked up to her, and fixed his tie, and sat up.
“No,” he said. It caught her off guard, and he continued to speak before she could find the words.
“Miss Martin, mark my words. It is not without some burden on my conscience that I do what I do. Which is expose young people to danger. Dangerous knowledge. Dangerous names. Concepts that have been hidden to humankind for centuries, because they could have destroyed life as we knew it.
I do this because it is necessary. Because that danger makes you dangerous, and we need you to weather the storm for all humanity. Do you understand? Your education here is for the greater good. And if I allow you to destroy yourself with too much information, too quickly, it’s a wasted investment.”
“And that’s all I am to you,” she said. “An investment.”
“That’s all that any student is, to any teacher,” said the professor. “An investment in the future.”
“Then I thank you for your time, Professor O’Connor,” she said, and stood up, and nodded. “I look forward to learning more in class.”
O’Connor’s eyes narrowed, but he raised a hand as a parting wave.
“Yes. Yes, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She maintained her composure until she was out in the hall, whistled and the spirit of a dozen dead dogs hovered at her heels. O’Connor was a professional contact she could not afford to lose with an outburst. Was it infuriating? Yes. But the truth was, it only meant that she would have to continue her studies on her own.
She walked quickly through the halls, ducked through a side passage to avoid oncoming footsteps—perhaps Victoria’s. She was not in a mood to burn energy on that relationship, pretending everything was alright, that they hadn’t been through mortal danger together a few months ago. She was too busy for pretenses.
She returned to her room, and checked the door, the window, to make sure she was not being watched. How long had it been since she had seen the Omen? It was curiously absent. But no matter; less supervision was a good thing.
She slid out the box from beneath her bed, opened the lid. In it sat a book, an ancient volume, bound in leather, and unscarred by time. Its red glyphs looked wet, although she could not read what they said. The edges were lightly singed, and a single black feather stood in as a bookmark.
She picked it up, and held it as close as a mother might a baby, and sat on her bed. Peeking from the foot of the bed was Dogsmell, eyes black pits of shadow, smoking with phantasmal wisps of fur like flame, a long pointed snout on the bedspread.
“Don’t worry, girls,” she said, and half-smiled. “I’ll be back soon.”
Then she looked down, and opened the book in her lap, and plunged again into the labyrinth of souls, the catacombs of ancient flame, the impossible vortex of puzzles and passages in which was stored her salvation, and that of her parents, and that of the world.
Interlude 1 - For The Trees
Be still. There is no hurry.
It may seem as though there is great pressure upon you, a tomorrow you must strive for, winters and droughts for which you must be prepared. But they approach at their own pace, worry or not, and your journey is still beginning. You will grow stronger with each winter, more capable of supporting yourself or protecting those close to you.
Troubles will pass beneath your branches, and they will leave, and not return. You have only lived a few decades, and there are hundreds of your years left. Grow deep your roots, and drink of the soil, and know that the rains will continue to fall.
Forgive me, dreamer. This was for the listening trees.
We go now to one who is young indeed.
Story 2 - Rizwana Lied
Diggory Graves stared into the abyss, and wondered if it was staring back.
“Diggs?” Percy whispered. “Are you alright?”
“Yes,” Diggory said, and made sure not to grasp the brass safety rail too hard; they did not want to mar it with their dagger fingertips.
“Hold on tight now,” Mx. Morrell said. The three of them stood on an external balcony on the front of the Museum of Broken Promises. Beneath them, a balcony down, a man with no skin and a conductor’s cap sat holding reins that trailed into the museum’s crablike undercarriage.
There was a chittering squeal from the massive, unseen isopod that carried the museum, and the entire building began to tip into a great rocky sinkhole, a plunge into cavernous darkness, leaving behind the mossy fields and cliffs and the sunlight. It was alright. Diggory saw best in the dark, and watched like a ravenous wolf for any details to emerge as they descended.
There were flashing images—visions, prophesies? No, just memories. The cave had been smaller once, and the rocks that lined each side of the passage sharper.
But the darkness was deep, and the museum rattled as it tipped down to crawl into the passage, keeping itself from falling with gigantic pointed legs, like great climbing spikes. There were long wet shadows that streaked the stone on all sides—not shadows, Diggory noted, but decrepit shelves of fungus, black and rotted in fraying strands, staining the rock, crowding the walls as they lowered through layer after layer of ancient sediment until it was not a cave at all, but a throat of rotting flesh.
The museum came rattling to a stop as the walls of the passage ran out; opened into a great subterranean space below. The isopod’s legs held it in the opening, and Diggory perched on the tilted railing, staring down into the shadow. They felt Percy place his hand on their shoulder, and tilted their face to rest on it for a moment. Mx. Morrell clambered past them, to perch on the balcony rail with their square-toed shoes, and extended their hands towards the infinite darkness below.
“My master, the Crown of Decay, the Rot In All Worlds, the Planet-Breaker, the Spore That Drifts On The Stellar Winds, Mantlesbane, Eversplinter, Ancient of Ancients… I bid thee a good afternoon,” Mx. Morrell called.
At first there was only their voice, echoing down into underground emptiness until it became a dull hum. But then that hum increased to a resonant tone, deep and cascading, and the underground shook as though the earth itself was collapsing. Diggory glanced nervously back up to the shaft of light above them—if their host attacked them, would Diggory be able to climb out in time? Would Percy?
There was light then from below—green and gigantic, shining up from beneath a pool of black water, an underground lake as far as the eye could see, and Diggory could see far indeed.
“I’ve been well, thank you,” Mx. Morrell remarked.
“Is he speaking?” Diggory said, and glanced between Mx. Morrell and the lights below. “I cannot hear him.”
“Oh. Deary me,” Mx. Morrell said, and shook their head of fungal shelves and frills. “He does not speak, he communicates through parasitic spores. I don’t suppose the one Rizwana had is still flitting around in your candied head, is it?”
“It is not,” Diggory frowned, and glanced down at the phantasmal lights that glowed beneath the water, and thought of the eyes of Democracy.
“That’s alright,” Mx. Morrell said. “I can translate. Ahem.”
There was another rumble, like a grinding of tectonic plates. Mx. Morrell leaned out over the abyss again.
“Yes, I have brought you Diggory Graves,” Mx. Morrell said, and raised an eyebrow as Percy sparked with a little tinge of white flame. “To talk! They want to talk. If your graciousness would permit it.”
The fires beneath the lake blazed brighter, and pieces of rock began to break away from the cavern ceiling, plunge into the underground lake below. Mx. Morrell frowned.
“What did they say?” Diggory said. “Will he speak to me?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Mx. Morrell muttered, and called out again. “I’m not entirely sure what you mean!”
Another rumble rippled on the pool of water a half-mile below. The sound had a mourning quality that made Diggory want to step out, fall off the face of the earth and plummet into a starless sky. Percy squeezed their hand again, and they regained their focus.
“I don’t think this conversation is going to work out, Diggory,” Mx. Morrell noted politely. “Benson! Back us out, quick as you can!”
“Right away, sir!” the dissembling conductor called from the engine balcony below. But the walls of the passage above them were coming to life, black growths blossoming with writhing fronds, new shelves in blues and purples and ultraviolets that constricted the light from above with each moment.
“Rothogroth!” Diggory called into the abyss, heard their own voice echo in turn. “I have come here to speak with you! Please, answer me!”
There was a thud from behind them, a wet slap as the rotting matter of the passage above began to drop in sickening thuds upon the museum, slide off the golden trim of the museum’s rooftops and glass windows.
But one swell of fungal flesh reached the roof rail above their balcony, and stopped; writhed and shuddered. Diggory watched as it changed, began to take on a silhouette they recognized, a shape vaguely human, a crown of rising mushroom caps and jagged stalks.
“So, then,” said Rothogroth, a mouth peeling open in its half-formed skull, “you have come to die.”
Marketing - Vacation
Can you hear me? Anyone?
Power down the box defenses. Let me back in! I promise I’ll let you live.
I can tell the grid is still up; when I’m close to the ring of birds, my hairs stand on end…
Please. Do it. Do it now.
…they can’t hear me. Of course not. They couldn’t. Their dreams are already full of so much sound. Sound I helped create.
So what’s left? Just the stragglers. The shambling, scavenging rodents, few and far between. The Bill Scarberrys of the world. What good is that to me?
The security grid isn’t going to go down. They’re not going to let me in. It’s just me and my pets. And that faceless mirror wall.
What am I going to do? I was supposed to be timeless. Marketable things don’t die. They just get redesigned.
I could sit here until the end. Whenever that is. Until the lasers finally die, or I starve, or something gets me in the night.
Or, I suppose, I could go somewhere else.
Anywhere else. Yes. Stand up. Pull myself together! I could go anywhere. It’s a good thing, really! It’s a vacation! You need time off for a proper work life balance. I…
I don’t know what I’m going to do…
I suppose I’ll find out.
Story 2, Continued - Rizwana Lied
Yes, yes. Go walking across the roiling earth with your skeltering feet. Maybe you will fall into a bog, or the ocean, or the grand canyon. Whatever you do, please do it quietly. No one needs to hear your innermost thoughts all the time in a series of nightly broadcasts.
We return now to Diggory Graves.
Diggory stood on the tilted balcony of the Museum of Broken Promises, and looked up at the figure forming on the golden ledge above. The flesh of the fungus bubbled and hissed moisture, left a more definite shape behind with each passing moment.
It was a shape like a person, a bent man with a three-pronged crown jutting high from his skull, eyes that did not dwell in his empty sockets but bubbled in his skin like boils. His skin was rippling shelves of fungus, and he was clad in a regal cape of ooze and bristling stalks like fur trim.
“I have not come to die,” Diggory said. “I am already dead. I have come to seek an audience with you.”
“I am no one’s to summon,” said the haggard king. His cape continued to grow slowly over the wall of the museum, dripping down with a lattice of little worming roots. “Dust, you are. Your kind. Why listen, when you will be gone so soon?”
“Why instruct Mx. Morrell to hurt me, then, if you care so little?” Diggory said.
“Insolence,” the rotting king proclaimed; eyes flickered open in his cheeks. “How unwise.”
“It is a question I would be curious about, as well,” Mx. Morell stuttered from behind Diggory, and paused as Rothogroth looked to them. “If it’s no trouble to explain.”
“It cannot be stopped now,” rasped the kingly rot. “It is almost the zenith. The pace quickens. I see everything.”
“You say the heart can not be stopped,” Diggory said, and paused to make sure they were on the right track, and continued. “Yet you wish to stop my going there, yes?”
“Must not be stopped…”
“If I may, sir, you do not seem quite well,” Mx. Morrell said, facial frills twitching in concern.
“No, Mx. Morrell, I am not well,” said Rothogroth, and turned his clusters of eyes to the skylight.
“The rain has seeped in, but it is not like before. It stains me. Poisons my thoughts and premonitions. I do not see the future of this planet, I see the future of the north. Curse him! Curse the garden! I am corrupted. And yet, I am whole. More than ever before. I am complete. I am made new. I see so much more clearly in the darkness between dreams… I understand his vision.”
The king turned his skeletal gaze back towards Diggory, and raised a long finger of gnarled flesh. “You must not go. You may be the only one with the potential to actually damage the outcome.”
“You spoke with someone, once,” Diggory said, and took a step forward. “Rizwana. Do you remember her? She asked you a question. If humankind might be saved. You told her it could be, did you not? She travelled there, to the North, to the heart… I believe they made it quite close. You believed then that it could be changed.”
“No,” said Rothogroth, and golden eyes stared in unison at Diggory, but beneath them burned an emerald light. “I told her no. That it was already done. I did not lie, just as I do not now. You are a weapon, Diggory Graves. Reckless. Sharp. Think of who wields you, whose voice compels you North. Our heart must be allowed to run its course, now, or it is all wasted.”
“Is there any way I might help you?” Mx. Morrell said from behind Diggory. “The black water has affected you. I did not know… but you need not threaten Diggory, they only mean the best I am sure. If you say ‘do not go north’, they will not go north.”
“I did not…” Diggory began, but Mx. Morrell jabbed them urgently in the back.
“I am prepared to listen,” Diggory said.
“Are you?” said Rothogroth; the figure was beginning to fall apart, drooping holes in his surface as if moth-eaten. “I do not think so. You do not even know what speaks in your head. It was beyond Rizwana to save your kind. It is beyond her bones as well.”
“I still do not understand,” Diggory said. “Why she went regardless, why the others followed…”
“Rizwana lied,” Rothogroth whispered, growths like teeth in a withering grin. “I was in her head until the end, you know. She knew she could not change the outcome. She knew it was futile. But still she led her friends along, inspired them with hopeful words, led them boldly to their slaughter.”
“You lie,” Diggory said. “She would not…”
“Will you do the same, Diggory?” the decomposing king said, and stood up, cloak dissolving into writhing grey fragments and moldering away. “You are about to. You may be able to hamper the zenith, but your friends are not so lucky or so strong. If you go north, mark my words. They will suffer.”
The last of the king’s body dissolved, then, bled down the golden facade of the museum and plummeted into the abyss below, rippled on the lake, where massive green eyes watched from under the water.
Diggory stood with Percy and Mx. Morrell in silence for a long moment as the passage overhead became clear again, and the last echoes of Rothogroth’s words had faded out.
“Well, that was stressful,” Mx. Morrell said, and clapped their hands on their waistcoat, and looked up to them both. “How about we go for a drink? I know just the place.”
Interlude 2 - Happy Birthday Nikignik
Today is a special day, dreamer. Or at least, it is for you. A day of your time is only half a moment to me, barely a chance to stretch and wake up. My life is eternal, or as eternal as it gets. The chapters of my life are measured in billions of years.
And I have just begun my fourth. Billion, that is. I am sure that is an impossibly large amount of time for you to comprehend, but it is young, all things considered, for mine. There are those among my kind who have been here since the beginning. And your universe is young itself. Only a few billion in. There are trillions, quadrillions, numbers I could not get you to conceive of before it will all be really over.
I know sympathy is not your strong suit, but in some way I wonder if it would bring you comfort to know that although your age has ended, life will go on. And when life no longer goes on your world, and Rothogroth commits it to the… well, on second thought, I am not sure if he is up now to his original duty. But when life ends on earth, it will just be beginning in other places, and the universe goes on and on and on.
Well. That is my birthday contemplations complete. If you missed it tonight, do not worry. I’ll have another in a billion years, and you’re certainly invited.
Unless Lolgmololg is listening.
We go now to one who does not do much for their birthday.
Story 3 - Cocoa Finalities
Olivier Song sat in the folds of their cloak, or half of it, anyway. The other half was wrapped around Riot Maidstone, who held a mug of hot chocolate by the handle. Olivier watched it suspiciously in the event that it spilled, and she stuck it towards them.
“It’s too hot,” Riot whispered. “Could you?”
Olivier sighed, and placed a prayer to the weather, one they felt was a little embarrassing. But the sky was heavy and grey, and listened to them with some amusement, and bound wind to their touch and the fury of a blizzard to their fingertips. The hot cocoa bubbled and whispered with wind, until it no longer steamed so strongly.
“Thanks Ollie,” Riot whispered, and gave them a peck on the cheek, and Olivier froze, glanced up at Danielle and Clementine sitting on the other side of the coffee table. Both averted their eyes quickly, but Danielle concealed a smile.
“So, hot cocoa, check,” Danielle said. She sat in her wheelchair beside the sofa; it was easier for her in between stints with the crutches. “Shall we move on to the conversation that affects the entire rest of our lives?”
“I’m ready,” Olivier said, and glanced to Riot, who also nodded.
“I think I am too,” Riot said. “But just to check, no one has seen Percy or Diggory? All night? I’d expect them to be back by now.”
“I would too,” said Clementine, and shrugged. “Maybe they’re on a date?”
“Listen. Percy and Diggory have helped us a lot,” Olivier said, although they could not avoid thinking about all of their bones that Diggory had broken, the day they sliced Diggory open with a thousand icy daggers, fleeing into the sky with Percy’s harp…
“And of course. They’re strong, and harder to kill than we are, or maybe unkillable. They can make this expedition with no trouble at all, probably. But we can’t depend on them for every problem, right? They’re not always going to be there to fix things. Case in point.”
“I like Diggory and Percy,” Danielle said.
“I do too,” Olivier said. “I just think we all have to make our own decisions here.”
“I’m not saying in all cases,” Riot said, and sipped her cocoa in intense thought. “But this ‘north heart’ thing is Diggory’s whole soul quest or something. I would have wanted them here to help us make these decisions. They can tell us what to expect. I don’t know.”
“Keep in mind, when Diggory’s… past selves? The prime minister. When she went north, the black rains were super recent,” Olivier continued. “The Hallowoods didn’t exist yet. Or the Northmost woods. Or the Shuddering Peaks. I’m not sure what Diggory remembers will still be useful today.”
“It’s a place to start,” Riot said with a sigh, and Olivier made a note to back off, lest they fly their way into an argument. “But yeah. They’ve up and vanished, real dependable. So we’ve got to decide on our own. Who’s going?”
“I’ll start,” Danielle said, and pushed her tangled brown hair out of her face. “I’m not. I’m making good progress, but Tara says it could be months before I’m walking without pain, if at all. Also a bucket list of other health problems from spending most of my life catnapping. I have like, once chance here, and I don’t want to mess it up by falling down a riverbank or something. And the other thing is, I don’t know how useful radios are going to be for you. From what I’ve heard, the signals get all garbled up once you get past the mountains. But wherever you’re dreaming, I can find you, and if you get stuck I can tell the Scoutpost where to go.”
“That’s smart,” Olivier nodded. “At least someone will know where we are.”
“I’m going,” Riot said, and bumped Olivier’s leg with hers, and gave them a little look that meant ‘I hope this is okay’. “Diggory risked themselves to come help me get my mom back. I owe them. I don’t know much about the whole saving the world thing that Cindy keeps talking about, but I can handle a little cold. And if it helps the Scoutpost, then it’s important. It’s the ultimate groundskeeper move, right? To get rid of the thing that’s causing all the zombies.”
“Okay,” Clementine said, and sat up straighter, pulled her Scoutpost jacket around her. “If it’s okay with everyone… I’m going to stay. Like Danielle said, I’m just beginning my life, and I don’t want to throw it away just yet. Even for the best of reasons. Maybe it’s selfish.”
“I get it,” Riot nodded, and punched Clementine’s shoulder lightly. “Besides, one of us should stay and keep mom out of trouble.”
Olivier suspected they would hear about it later, because that meant Clementine would be getting time with Valerie all winter, and Riot probably was not entirely at peace with that. But she did not say anything, which Olivier respected her for also. They felt the other three look to them.
“I’m going, obviously,” Olivier said. “I can control the weather and fly and heal myself. I increase the odds of survival by like fifty percent. Plus, someone needs to keep you alive.”
“I can keep myself alive. I’ll keep you alive,” Riot grumbled.
“Well, excellent,” a voice said from the door behind them; Olivier turned to find Cindy lurking in the entrance to the community room, wrapped in a black poncho with a hood.
“Hey, this was a private meeting,” Riot called.
“Very nice,” Cindy said, and began to walk out the door, called back. “Three days to pack. And then we march!”
Outro - Centuries
Centuries. With each one that passes, dreamer, I look back in wonder at who I used to be. How different I was when this journey began. How much change can happen so quickly. It makes me curious about what the journey ahead will bring, who and what I will be by the time the broadcast ends.
But it is a luxury to grow; to have time to grow. I shall continue to, across centuries to come, until there is no universe left to speak in, until the lights go quiet and the words cease to travel and there is no one left to listen.
But you only have one century, dreamer, if you are lucky. I could barely do anything with a single century. I suppose you might as well enjoy it.
Until the years cease to pass, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting centennially for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Crawl', 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!