Content warnings for this episode include: Nolan never wears clothes, Abuse, Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Body Horror, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Alcohol Mention, Racism towards froglins?
Intro - Petty Niceties
Flowers in silhouette, beautifully arranged and captured in grey and purple silk. An operations book of fine dark leather. An umbrella with space metal in its bones, and eyes of sight inscribed in its skin, forged in the fire of souls. They are the best things you own; a note of color and luxury in the grey expanse of your office, and the offices beyond that, and the offices beyond those. These gifts are a product of your unique division, as are your own hands and form—you mimic the likeness of the worlds you audit, but never their joys.
You find a certain escape in your fine objects, and they bring you comfort as you begin your seventeenth century audits. That was when it began, most likely; your taste for petty niceties. It informs you even now, although the grey expanse is far behind you, and as you sculpt the fire of souls in vaulting ceilings and dinner halls and chandeliers, your luxury is a flame, burning brightly in a world that watches dark, whispers Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I’m floating in a crystal formation. It is one of many that line the pools and hot tubs of the Grand Crossroads Hotel Spa. Three step in through the foggy glass doors, but only one wears clothes. The theme of tonight’s episode is Decadences.
Story 1 - The Being With You
“Is there anything else I can get you?” said the man in the door, if man he was. He wore a suit of satin flowers, and had a flourish of ginger hair that shone in the low light.
“Oh this is fantastic,” Nolan said. The proprietor of the Grand Crossroads Hotel did not seem as vulgar as the master of the Resting Place, or as likely to cheat at cards, but there was some semblance that reminded him of Barb all the same—something in the body language. As if always waiting for something to happen.
“Very well then. You two enjoy yourselves,” Polly said, and ducked out of the frosted glass door, left them to the spa. It was a large room filled with various pools—some with bubbling jets of water, some cloudy and green with therapeutic salts, some cold as ice. Sparkling geodes decorated the corners, and mosaics of glittering stones depicted islands and birds of paradise. Besides his boyfriend, there was only one other occupant; a shiny pair of eyes peeking from a very small jacuzzi, where a froglin sat swathed by bubbles.
“It’s like the hot springs up on the mountain,” Nolan said, and at Ricou’s nod, slipped into a warm mineral bath. His new partner followed, green fins and barbed skin stretched as he found the water. Ricou always looked happiest when he was in his own element.
“I do miss the view from that place,” Ricou said, and blinked with his secondary eyelids.
“You know what? Me too, from time to time,” Nolan said, and drifted around in the water. The floor of the pool had a rough sand texture, although his feet had become so calloused over the years that he could barely feel it at all. “It was nice being up there with you. And I think I even needed that, for the time. But I’m glad that you decided to come back to the forest with me, too. Get to enjoy places like this.”
“Even before the mountain, when we camped in the mud cave where I dwelt… it was a luxury as long as you were there,” said the green-finned man.
Nolan paddled over to where Ricou floated, and hung off Ricou’s shoulder. It was odd for Nolan to swim; looking down, there was a gap in the water where his body was, his shape illustrated by absence.
“What are you looking at?” Ricou barked; the Froglin across the spa sunk deeper into the bubbles.
“Is that Grug, or a different one?” Nolan whispered.
“I cannot tell,” Ricou replied. “Nor do I care.”
“I don’t mean this the way it sounds,” Nolan said. “But are they like you? Where they looked just averagely human once? Or are they something else?”
“They wander the swamps with spears and nets, and are too dimwitted to spot me lurking beneath the water,” Ricou said. “And they are very bad at cards. This is what I know.”
“It’s just an odd world I find myself living in, and I’m trying to make sense of it,” Nolan said.
“We are odd people,” said Ricou, and sank a little deeper into the water, until it lapped at his mossy chin. “We belong in it.”
“Thought you were all ‘afraid of the world’,” said Nolan. “Whatever happened to ‘never trust strangers and always stay inside’?”
Ricou was silent for a long moment, the gentle lamplight glinted on his ridged skin.
“These last few months have been… nice,” Ricou said. “Meeting Alice, and Winona, coming back to this hotel and finding it so different… I am realizing that I did not have to be so afraid. That there are people like us, and they are not all hungry animals as I was.”
“Again with the self-talk,” Nolan clucked, and dipped his hand in the water, watched the emptiness displace the bubbles. “But I’m glad. And I think we can make this work. The house is shaping up pretty well…”
“It may be a challenge to finish our renovations before winter,” Ricou said. “I will put my focus on insulation. We must keep you warm.”
“I could also bundle up a little more,” Nolan said. “I’ll manage. And by the spring I think we’ll have patched up all the rotten boards in the walls, the roof…”
“Pile rocks beneath so it stops sinking into the lake,” Ricou said.
“Given that you have the incredible strength and the breathing underwater, I’m going to put that one on you,” Nolan laughed, and sighed, looked at the side of Ricou’s amphibious face. A green eye flicked to look at him.
“Ricou,” Nolan said. “I’m… really happy, doing this with you.”
“The spa?” said Ricou. “Yes. I find it refreshing.”
“Not just the spa,” Nolan said.
“The renovations have gone faster working together than alone,” Ricou observed.
“Not the renovations either,” Nolan smiled. “The ‘being with you’. I’ve been meaning to ask… when we have our place fixed up. What… I don’t know how to ask this. What do you want to be to each other? What do you want to do with our future, I guess? What kind of life do you want with me?”
Ricou closed all his eyelids, and frowned, and began to sink, until fronds and fins fell into the bubbles and he was gone entirely. Nolan sighed, and followed him, sunk until he could put his forehead against Ricou’s, sat beneath the water with him, bathed in lights and bubbles.
It was unspoken, but true, he knew, that they would find out in time.
Interlude 1 - No Wealth
If you live in the Northern Hallowoods, there are many little luxuries that are no longer accessible to you. Due to import costs and ailing supply lines, they may never have been accessible there to begin with. Even the basic tenements of survival are dependent on the few farms and gardens and salvagers that still persist year after year.
The factory-communes and oil-cities still grind out their products years after the means of their production were seized—and Botco’s outreach programs promise favors for the rest of your community at great cost; there is only one place where luxury truly survives, now, and it is in imagination, in the dreaming minds of the millions connected to the Prime Dream.
And yet, there are moments when the age of scarcity might almost be forgotten, roadside destinations in the unlikeliest of places where comfort might still be found. For comfort is what matters still, when there is no one left to admire gold or jewelry, no audience to display wealth or status to, for wealth itself has lost its meaning.
We go now to one who has found their meaning.
Story 2 - Are You A Prophecy
“What is wrong?” Diggory said. Mx. Morrell seemed concerned, and the grinding path of the museum slowed almost to a halt.
“It’s the wrong hotel,” Mx. Morrell said, and stared out the little window in the foyer of the museum. Diggory found another through which to look; saw that a building outside was the size of the museum, bedecked in yellow and pink bulbs, warm light in shaded windows, a glowing sign that read ‘The Grand Crossroads Hotel’, and beneath it a cinema sign that read ‘Poker Night’.
“What do you mean, the wrong hotel?” Diggory said. “It looks a pleasant place, although I have never seen such grandeur outside of a Dreaming Box…”
“I don’t know the ‘Grand Crossroads’,” Mx. Morrell said, and stuck their hands in their pockets. “This used to be a place called the Resting Place, right here on the marsh. I wonder if Barb has remodeled…”
“Barb being who exactly?” said Percy, stretching his silver chassis as he paced around the coat room.
“Oh, Barb is quite a character, and an old friend. But it’s best if you meet him yourself,” Mx. Morrell said, and nodded. “Yes. Must have rebranded while I was away. Maybe he mentioned it to me, I don’t know… I was rather under the table when I left here last. Good whiskey here. Very good whiskey.”
The museum hissed and rumbled as it came to rest, and descended thirty feet as the great isopod that carried it folded its legs under its architectural carapace. And then Mx. Morrell was leading them down an extending gangway and across a field of loose stone and marshy puddles towards the electric palace. Percy’s clinking footsteps followed close behind. The museum pilot, Benson, who seemed to be an anatomical model of a skinless human body, waved from an upper balcony, Beetle Baby peeking from beneath one arm. Diggory flexed a few fingertips in a return wave, and followed Mx. Morrell for the hotel doors, and the world was swallowed in a soft pink light so much brighter than the stars overhead.
The museum was not the only vehicle parked in the lot; rusted trucks and battle wagons, motorcycles and a strange bejeweled animal stared back. Diggory looked, but did not see the signature bike of the Count. There was a great revolving door of brass and polished glass set into the rosy stone, and a world of color bubbling on the other side.
“Now be warned,” Mx. Morrell said, pausing at the doors to straighten out their coat tails. “Barb is a bit of a scoundrel. Do not get roped into one of his card games unless you are prepared for high stakes; I never do too well in them myself. Make sure anything of value stays in your pockets. Otherwise, have fun.”
Mx. Morrell turned, and strode in through the door, and disappeared in a twist of glass panels, left Diggory and Percy standing outside.
“Let’s not stay here too long, okay?” Percy said; the silver plates of his skin shone with pink and gold reflections. “They’re going to miss us at the Scoutpost pretty soon…”
“One more evening should be alright,” Diggory said. “In the morning, we return home.”
“And do what?” Percy said. “You heard that thing in the pit. Diggory, I have seen a lot—Big Mikey, and vampires, and wolves. My own dad carried by an army of ghosts. But that thing, taking up all the underground, talking to you like that? I’ve never been so scared.”
“I was prepared to do anything to protect you…”
“Not scared for me,” Percy said, and put a silver hand on Diggory’s jacket breast. “Scared for you. I’m worried about what you’re tangled up in. And that somehow if you go on this journey, something bad will happen to you. And that conversation we just had? It only confirmed that, right?”
“Percy,” Diggory said, and put their stitched hands over his silver one, and held it close. “I understand. I have spent a great deal of time worrying about you, when you were taken from me again and again and again. But I did not lose hope, because I know you, and you are strong. And I believed—I had faith—that you would be there for me to rescue. I know the journey ahead seems impossible, and frightening. But I am asking you to trust that I will be alright. That I was made to handle this. I am only tangled up in my own strings, like a broken puppet. And I feel that when this is done, I will be… untangled. I need to do this, Percy. Not for Cindy Lockheart. Nor Rizwana Mirza. Not even for our friends and all the world. But for me.”
Percy looked up at them a moment, and Diggory wished they could parse the limited movements of Percy’s silver face, understand without words what he was feeling, but they could not. Percy went up on his toes, and pressed his faceplate to Diggory’s chin in a way indicative of a kiss.
“I love you,” Percy said, gears whirring inside.
“And I you,” Diggory said. I hope I do not destroy your trust, Diggory thought. I hope I will keep the promises I have made. I have made them because I want them to be true. “Now. Shall we go see what this hotel holds?”
“Let’s do it,” Percy said, with a metal smile, and squeezed their hand in his, and they stepped through the revolving door.
They emerged together on the other side; a great entry hall with pillars and a painted ceiling, notes of classical music in the air, chandeliers and wall sconces, double doors into hotel halls and vaulting staircases—and in the middle of the grandeur, Mx. Morrell holding a handkerchief in one hand and their glasses in the other. The hotel desk itself caught Diggory’s attention the most, however. It was marble, and quite large, and a huge person—ten feet tall at least—stood behind the deck, wearing a battered suit of red metal armor, shoulder pads plastered with ruined stickers of pride flags and the Stonemaiden band and scientific organizations. The suit had a pneumatic grasper-cutter claw on one hand, and a high-pressure glass observational dome, in which a human skull with flames for eyes bubbled in black water.
Memory came flooding into Diggory’s head like water through a submarine wall.
“Barty?” Diggory said, and held up in the middle of the hall, stared up at him.
“Hm?” said the lumbering suit; there was a little bellboy cap affixed to the top of his dome. “Hi, and welcome to the Grand Crossroads Hotel. My name is Mort. Will you be my friend?”
Marketing - Concentrate
Hello. If you are hearing this in your dream you are obliged to remember it and respond, or else you are very rude. After all, I am Lady Ethel Mallory. I gave you thirty years of my life. I sacrificed everything to be your national icon. So if anyone within the San Francisco ruined beach area has blackwater concentrate, please bring it to me.
I tried just the rain, for a while. At times it felt like it was quenching my thirst. But I came to realize that I needed more; increasing the potency proved to be more effective than higher volumes, even if it did hasten certain… changes. Even so, I can’t go back. I need it. If I don’t get it, I don’t know what will happen to me.
Maybe I’ll shrivel up and fall out of my own skin. Maybe my split bones will fuse back together. Maybe I’ll break apart like a twig, bone by bone. For now I have a headache, and I am thirsty. But I expect the rest is coming…
Story 2, Continued - Are You A Prophecy
How I wish that I could see the future, if only to know for certain if I can expect a peaceful night sometime in the next half century. I would have to celebrate were that the case.
We return now to Diggory Graves.
“I would like to be your friend,” Diggory said, and stepped forward slowly, glanced between Mx. Morrell and the skull in the suit. “I think in some way I might already be.”
“I like that,” said Mort, and lifted his massive grasping claw, turned a page in a letter book with its point. “Do you have a reservation? Or are you just here for the cards night?”
“You call yourself Mort,” said Diggory, and stepped up to the desk, placed their fingertips on the edge. “I call myself Diggory now. But if you are who I think you are, you may remember a part of me as Ruth Esther Barnes, as August Palls, as Chancellor Ward, as Evelyn Fry, as Rizwana Mirza.”
Mort stared at them; the green lights in his skull flickered.
“That’s the lady from my dreams,” he said. “The last one. Do you dream about her too?”
“I do, from time to time,” Diggory said, and smiled. They turned to Percy, who was tapping them on the shoulder.
“Diggory?” Percy whispered. “I think some of these people were there the night we burned my dad’s house down. The night he died. Look.”
Diggory looked up—they had gotten brief images in the fight, of devils and wolves and red metal, but they had known themselves so much less then, only had attention for Percy and his father. But they recognized him, a spry little man in a flowery suit who stepped down the stairs with catlike grace.
“Is Mort assisting you perfect strangers adequately?” the devil asked.
“Please say five stars,” Mort grumbled. It was interesting how he managed to talk, Diggory thought; the skull did not really move in kind so much as you just heard the voice, much like Democracy.
“Five stars,” said Percy.
“Oh lovely,” said the man in the floral suit, reaching the bottom of the stairs. “Polly, special manager. What brings you all in tonight?”
“I’m afraid we haven’t met,” said Mx. Morrell, placing their dark glasses on again, and they went to shake Polly’s hand with one sprouting fingers like mushroom stalks. “Mx. Morrell, Museum of Broken Promises. I was quite close with Barb… I was a regular. I am terribly sad to hear of his demise.”
“Mort, you’re supposed to refer me these conversations,” Polly whispered.
“But I’m also supposed to be helpful and answer questions,” Mort said. “Which is it?”
Polly and Mx. Morrell continued to talk, but Diggory leaned in a little on the counter, got Mort’s attention.
“You mentioned dreams,” Diggory said to the behemoth. “What kind of dreams do you have?”
“I see her sometimes standing on a bone beach,” Mort said. “I didn’t always know her name. But we talk. A little, each time. So now I know more. I don’t know why she talks to me.”
“I do not know,” Diggory said, “if it is only a dream. I have visions of her, for she is a part of me now. But I also know of others who resemble you—bone and eyes of green flame. They too sleep in water, and dream in visions and prophecy.”
“What’s a prophecy?” said Mort.
“Something that tells you what is going to happen,” said Diggory.
“Are you a prophecy?” said Mort.
“I do not think so,” said Diggory. “I wonder if these dreams of yours are significant in their timing. You and I both died in the same mission.”
“I’m dead,” said Mort. “But also not really dead, because I can talk and move and take reservations.”
“I am the same,” said Diggory.
“I’m going to leave you two to it,” Percy whispered. “Take a little look around.”
“Do not wander too far,” Diggory said. “I do not wish to lose you.”
“Am I a prophecy?” said Mort.
“You may be a prophet, of sorts,” Diggory said. “You and I died together, Mort. We were trying to save everyone. We went North, on a boat, to destroy a terrible heart. I am about to try again. I am glad that I got to meet you before I leave.”
“Why can’t I go?” Mort said.
“I…” Diggory began. “It is a deadly mission.”
“Great,” said Mort. “That’s why I’m dead.”
“I suppose if you wanted to, there would certainly be room for you…” Diggory conceded.
“When does it go?” Mort said. “I need to request time off at least two weeks in advance…”
“Excuse me,” said Polly, and Diggory was suddenly face to face with the manager, whose eyes burned like embers, and upon whose head danced two horns of curling flame, and his words cut like a hot brand.
“Stop trying to kidnap my receptionist, and get out of my hotel.”
Interlude 2 - Trivial Without Guilt
When you are so expansive that you encompass each corner of the universe, and exist only as a field of energy and willpower and dream, and live for almost eternity, it can be hard to treat yourself. What pleasure is there that is not impossibly brief in the grand scheme, that can sway the feelings of a supernova, a nebula, a black hole?
And yet, I have no need for treat or excess. I am self-sufficient, self-sustaining. Or at least, as much as it matters. I will degrade, I think, over time, were eternity longer than it will be for this universe. I am timeless compared only to you. But I am content to progress at that slow pace, and the chances are that I will be destroyed by some other being before then.
This becomes more likely, perhaps, as this broadcast continues. I do not feed myself on souls and sacred flame. My idea of a decadence is to spend my time on something trivial, superfluous, without guilt. And so we continue.
We go now to one who rarely gets days off.
Story 3 - All Things Deadly
“Can you believe it, Mr. Writingdesk?” said Mr. Raven, dropping grey duffel bags on the bed.
“I know,” said Mr. Writingdesk, ducking to enter the door, and put his bags in a chair by the door after the girl shuffled in. “It’s a nice room. I like the bedspread.”
“Not the room,” said Mr. Raven, and wheeled around. “Well, yes. The room is splendid, and of course it’s a nice change from our office cots. Or your cell box, CPE-13.”
“Penny,” said CPE-13. “My name is Penny.”
“Your classification is CPE-13. We don’t use names here,” said Mr. Raven, and thought of his own name, which was so far away from him now that it barely seemed to have ever belonged to anyone. “But I am talking about the fact that this hotel, everyone in it—the very walls!— are giving off copious amounts of Indie radiation. Multiple sources of Zeddemore rays confirmed. We’ve hit the jackpot, if you will.”
Mr. Raven unfolded the mobile parospectrogram from his sleeve and pressed it to the wall, and gasped.
“Impossible,” he whispered.
“Because that wallpaper’s been gone since 17th century France,” said Mr. Writingdesk.
“And I am not entirely sure it exists,” said Mr. Raven. “The entire building may be an elaborate illusion, a phantom image. The signature is ranking off the charts…”
There was a decisive creak, and both of them looked over to find Penny, red hair escaping from beneath her grey hood, opening the window only to find it barred.
“Penny,” said Mr. Raven. “Dammit. CPE-13. How many times must you try to escape before you accept that it will never happen?”
“And as much as it may seem like we’re the worst people in the universe,” said Mr. Writingdesk, “it is worth noting that there is an entire forest out there giving off crazy radiation, potentially filled with all things deadly. You wanna live and try to see your sister someday, you’ll wanna stay alive.”
“Don’t encourage her,’ said Mr. Raven, and cuffed Mr. Writingdesk lightly on the shoulder. “It. Don’t encourage it. This is a dangerous CPE you are speaking to.”
“One which we must keep an eye on at all times,” said Mr. Writingdesk.
“Yes,” said Mr. Raven. “Preferably. The minute we’re gone, the dynamics of its luck may change. That’s the problem with subjective abilities, they’re hard to predict.”
“But for instance, if you had any notion of scouting out CPE’s from the hotel we may be able to capture, she’s going to have to come with.”
“Mm,” said Mr. Raven, and frowned. “Well. As much as I hate the prospect of adding other factors to its presence, it actually might aid us in that pursuit.”
“Please no,” said CPE-13, from where it had sat down on the floor by the window, arms over its knees. “Please don’t use me to trap someone else. It’s not fair.”
“It’s not only fair, it is necessary,” Mr. Raven sighed, and pulled a heavy duty laptop from one of the bags, folded out lenses and sensor dishes, and the screen came alight with green alerts. “Mr. Writingdesk? You’re not going to believe it—the original signal we’ve been tracking? It’s here. Aspects of it, anyways. This might be a faster trip than we expected.”
“Great,” Mr. Writingdesk said, and went to kneel beside CPE-13.
“Now listen, Penny,” he said.
“Mr. Writingde—” Mr. Raven began, but Mr. Writingdesk lifted a finger in silence, and Mr. Raven decided to respect it, and sighed.
“Penny, we’ve been on the road for days. Tensions are high, and neither of us likes each other very much,” Mr. Writingdesk said. “But there is one thing we both agree on, and that’s to take a look around this grand new place we’ve shown up at.”
“You’re just going to use me to hurt them,” CPE-13 whispered. “The people here.”
Mr. Writingdesk glanced to Mr. Raven, who shot him a dedicated look of ‘what on god’s green earth do you think you’re doing’.
“How about this,” Mr. Writingdesk said. “If they’re not harming anyone, we’ll leave them be. And in exchange, you stay put with us for tonight. No running. Sound fair?”
“You mean it?” said CPE-13.
“I do,” said Mr. Writingdesk. “Isn’t that right, Mr. Raven?”
“Yes,” Mr. Raven sighed. “I don’t understand why you insist on bargaining with her. But I accept.”
“Right,” said Mr. Writingdesk, and stood up. “Now, if I saw the signage correctly, there’s a card game set to start in an hour or two. I reckon we can relax a little before vacation is over.”
“I suppose a little time off might not hurt,” Mr. Raven said, as Mr. Writingdesk came back over, and for a moment Mr. Raven was reminded of just how big the man was. “Before work resumes.”
“Yeah,” said Mr. Writingdesk, and loosened his own tie, let it hang from either side of his shirt collar, with one button scandalously undone. Mr. Writingdesk then did something he rarely ever did. He smiled.
“Let’s hope luck is on our side tonight.”
Outro - Decadences
Decadences. There is such a thing, I think, as excess, and it is apparent in the landscape of your kind. Some dreamers dwell in tents and decaying neighborhood houses, shelter in the forest and scavenge for food. Others fly from silver castle to silver castle on billion-dollar rotor wings, dream in magnificent slumber about mansions of thought.
If you listen to this dream now, I regret to inform you that you are the former, and that true luxury will be forever out of your grasp.
So if you scrounge upon a piece of chocolate, a cup full of coffee, food that is better than scraps, bread without moldering, feel no regret. This is a brief life for you, and you may as well make of it an experience worth remembering, if remember you will at all.
Until all is dust and ash, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting luxuriously for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'The Oldies', 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!