Content warnings for this episode include: Suicide mention, local woman eaten by giant flies, animal death (Bert the seagull as usual), Abuse, Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Bugs, Body horror, Alcohol Use, Alcoholism
Intro - Soul For A Future
No one comes proudly to the crossroads. It is where you find yourself when you can walk no longer, and the paths you have charted for yourself have disappeared. You carry so little, and yet it is all you have to barter with. The coins in your pocket and the receipts in your vest hold no worth here; your past is a ruinous heap. There is one thing you desire, and it is a future.
The figure that stands in the center of the roads is wreathed in shadow; flames are in his eyes, and gleaming horns crown his head. He hungers for your soul, the one thing you have been taught to treasure, the one thing you have left to trade. You hand it over quickly so that no one sees, obscure it with the fold of your coat. He smiles in return, and offers you only the road; a route out of heaven, a winding trail that leads to a true self, to a forest that welcomes you with a Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I am crawling along the routes of a framed map, depicting the continental USA and Canada. It has a star for every Grand Crossroads Hotel location. There is only one star. The map shares a wall with ornaments and artifacts, drawings with painted turquoise and reds and yellows depicting cities and dances and flames. In the center, two people on opposite sides of a desk fight about their future. The theme of tonight’s episode is Crossroads.
Story 1 - To Live With Disappointment
Polly paced the carpet in front of Yaretzi’s management desk, which was already becoming well-tread. She had decorated the place according to her own fancy—drawings that she and Mort had done together, items bought from passing salvagers, and a gift or two he’d materialized personally—but she spent little time in the office, as she preferred to be out talking to guests and fighting the fires of customer service. This was one of the rare occasions where she leaned back in her desk chair, arms crossed, and waited for him to finish his tribulations.
“So I told them politely to leave,” Polly said.
“And then they refused, and went for your umbrella, and you incinerated them into ash,” Yaretzi said. “And this is why you are so upset.”
“No,” Polly said, and tapped his umbrella on the carpet. “Then they said they would wait for Mx. Morrell and company out front, and they left. Politely.”
Yaretzi frowned, and rubbed a golden earring between two long-nailed fingers.
“So why, then, are you doing that thing where you walk back and forth and talk very quickly?”
Polly stopped in front of the desk, and crossed his arms, and breathed deep as if beginning a yoga exercise.
“Because I thought we were safe,” he said. “We’ve had months to make this work. You with the managing, and me with the budgets and sales and acquisitions. And Mort to help out here and there, in his way. And every day I’ve looked out the front door and thought ‘is this the day Typhon goes back on his deal? Is this the day Rick Rounds turns up ready to stab someone with a metal stake? And every day I remind myself that I’m just being paranoid, and we are finally allowed to have a life together. And then this happens.”
“Do you wish me to fight for you?” said Yaretzi, the teeth were sharper a moment, the ears longer. “Sometimes you wish for support, and violence, and a strong ally. This I can be. But other times you bring me problems because you wish for my perspective. Which would you like?”
“Your perspective, obviously,” Polly said, and dusted off his jacket shoulder. “I can do my own fighting.”
She snorted, and put her hands on the table, her nails together. She was stealing some of his mannerisms, he thought.
“Are you sure that this invitation to a wilderness trip is a threat to our family?” she said. “Or do you see it this way because you do not think Mort can fend for himself?”
Polly began to speak, and bit his tongue. And began again, and faltered again. It was a threat because it meant separating their family. They could get along alright without Mort at the front desk from an operations perspective, truthfully—as their hotel community grew, so did the potential helping hands. Zorgelleck could handle it. But if Mort was on some sort of wilderness expedition in the arctic, then he wasn’t within immediate eyesight of Polly, and that meant Polly might not know if things went wrong. If these strangers had good intentions, or whether they could take care of him, or whether they were just manipulating him as a blunt instrument for their own ends.
Polly felt he was back, then, on a jagged pier in a drowned village, reading a seeking spell out of a corporate manual and hauling Mort’s metal carcass up from the deep.
Was that why he was afraid? That the silver claw that could cut open bats and wolves, trim the thorny claws of his enemies, would be gone? That he’d be exposed? Was he still using Mort as a weapon after all this time?
“I’m not afraid,” he said. She squinted, and he cleared his throat, and continued. “For Mort, that is. I’m not entirely sure he can be killed. Worst case scenario I can just fish his bones out of the ocean again. But I still think this trip is an unnecessary risk. And if something were to happen I don’t think I could forgive myself for letting him go.”
“Have you asked Mort what he wants to do?” Yaretzi said.
Polly was silent. It had not occurred to him, and it irritated him that it had not. But then again, did it truly matter? For better or worse, Mort had become their ward, and when you were responsible for someone, you made decisions to protect them. You generally avoided, unless he was greatly mistaken, letting them wander out in the wilderness with the first band of unsettling strangers who tossed them an invitation.
“I’m not allowing it,” Polly said, and nodded to himself, put both hands on his umbrella. “You know him as well as I do, Yaretzi. I don’t trust anyone Barb had business dealings with. If what they plan to tamper with in the arctic is what Mort was after the first time he sank, it’s as good as a suicide mission for them anyway, and I’d hate if he had to watch. Mort might be ready to go on his own adventures, but I’m not ready to let him go yet. We’ve not even had a year, Yaretzi. I’d like a little longer.”
Yaretzi sighed, and her gold eyes darted up to the door. “Mort, you can come in.”
Polly turned to find a large shadow on the frosted glass; but Mort did not enter, and instead ran away down the hall, thudding footsteps echoing through the floor.
“I can help talk to him, if you’d like,” Yaretzi said. “Smooth things over.”
“It’s alright,” Polly said, and tapped his umbrella again, and reached for the door. “He’s going to have to learn sometime how to live with disappointment.”
Interlude 1 - One Road
One could say metaphorically that there are many roads that lead to the Hallowoods. There is literally, however, only one road that leads to the Hallowoods, and it is an ill-trodden and patchwork thing, constructed primarily so that mining corporations could move their trucks across the untilled expanses of earth in Northern Ontario and bury their shovels in the Ring of Fire.
From there, it is a narrower path, the Northern Artery that connects the few established settlements—Webequie First Nation, and the Dry Market, and Scoutpost 2. If you find yourself standing on a road that leads to the road that leads to the Hallowoods, and you remember these dreams you have had, and see behind your eyes for a moment the darkness that dwells at the end… remember that you can turn back. And probably should, if survival is still something you hold dear.
But if it calls you, and you feel that there is nowhere left to go, and all that is left of your past is ash, the forest will welcome you as it does all—with dark arms, and a close embrace, and no intent of letting you leave again.
I am not sure if that is better or worse. You be the judge. It is your life, after all, and it is up to you to test your luck with darkening forests.
We go now to one for whom luck never smiles.
Story 2 - Four Grey Walls
Four grey walls.
A bed with white sheets, and simple grey furniture, and a sink and a toilet.
That had been the extent of her cell; her world ended with those sixteen feet by ten, and the wall of glass, and the two men on the other side who peered at her like she was a zoo animal, a lab rat, anything but a six-year-old girl they’d snatched from her mother and sister.
She had grown accustomed to the sounds of their chattering, echoing through the passages and air vents; the weight of the earth above her, the taste of oxygen passed through a dozen aging filtration systems.
And then to find her a leash, pull her out into the screaming world, where the air was so light she could barely breathe, where the eyes watching her and voices speaking and feet tramping was thunderous, where there was so much more color than grey. It was almost cruel. But that had never stopped them.
She saw with her eyes, yes, and walked with her feet, but the connection she had with everything around her, permeating and deep, caught on so many twists of fortune, so many little products of chance. It had barely seen use, before, and now she had a whole world to bless with gifts she could not control. Each one ripped from her prying hands into destiny’s thankless grasp; each credit to karma a balance she would have to pay for out of pocket.
She sat paralyzed at a table in the hotel; stared at the painted devils that blanketed the ceiling. Did their beady eyes stare back at her, or was it just the passing shadows? Nothing made sense, and if her mind had been prone to wandering into inventive realities during her isolation beneath the ground, it had exploded into reality around her.
The waiter passing by the tables in a velvet jacket had a head of glittering glass; you could see the chandeliers and card tables passing through the other side. The other guests of the hotel were beetles and frogs, magicians and clowns; all the usual dreamed-up guests of her birthday parties.
Her gaze fell to the card table closest; it was crowded, with seven seats taken, and it was there that her captors sat. They were laughable, here, in their grey suits, surrounded by so many more interesting players. There was a boy all made of silver, and at his side a person with a head of blooming fungal shelves and dark spectacles. A ghastly thing with a face of drifting bandages, skin like peeling leather scraps, had cards floating in its frail skeletal hands. A woman with shadows in her eyes drank from a sparkling glass and never smiled, and beside her a monster wrapped in moss and green fins hunched over the hand he had been dealt.
And it was a good hand, Penny was sure. All of them had to be. Because she was here, and while she was, the universe was going to make a point of punishing her. Look at them, it said. They are happy, and you will never be. You may look, but you can never have. She chewed on her fingernails as the game continued, and Mr. Raven, the one she hated most of all, displayed his hand at the end of a round.
“Well I believe I’ve come out on top again,” he said. “Anyone care to go double or nothing?”
“Don’t push it,” said Mr. Writingdesk quietly, and nudged his partner.
The thing with the bandage-wrapped face unhinged its jaw, and Penny thought she could almost hear a sound like a dog whistle.
“What is that monstrosity doing?” said Mr. Raven.
“That is the Quilt, and it says you are cheating,” said the woman in black. Could it be her sister, Penny wondered? She was as beautiful as she would have expected, as deathly in gaze, but she was old, too old. Hundreds of years old, although she did not look it.
“Preposterous,” said Mr. Writingdesk, putting a hand on Mr. Raven’s back to keep him quiet. “Got a knack for it is all.”
“A ‘knack’ is two or three rounds won,” said the mushroom. “This is four and counting.”
“Perhaps your steady flow of drinks is impairing your judgment,” crowed Mr. Raven. “What am I doing, arguing with a plant…”
“I am not a plant,” said Mx. Morrell. “You and I are very much alike. Percy, isn’t this treatment ridiculous?”
“I don’t know how to play this game,” said the silver boy, looking around; he glanced at Penny briefly with his security camera eyes. “Have you seen Diggory?”
“I’m sure they’re wandering around here somewhere,” said the mushroom. “The point is…”
“I am not going to play another round,” said the swamp beast, and attempted to shove back from the table, but instead shifted the entire table several inches. “I too feel something unfair is occurring.”
“Hey now,” said Mr. Writingdesk, who in turn stood up, and shoved the table a few inches back in the other direction. “Fair’s fair. No need to get violent.”
“Believe me, I have not shown you violence yet,” the green man snarled.
“Are you two just perfectly normal humans?” the pale woman sighed, and swirled a glass. “You’re lucky you didn’t come in during the old administration. Not that either of you look particularly appetizing. Maybe you, big fellow…”
“Is that a threat?” said Mr. Raven, and stood up as well, although it had less of a dramatic effect than when Mr. Writingdesk did so.
“Hah,” said the green man. “We have no need of threats. I have snapped thicker necks than yours.”
“I’m very uncomfortable,” whispered the silver boy. “Can I go?”
The quilted thing dropped its skeletal jaw and laughed a silent laugh, one which was shared by the shadow woman and not by any of the others at the table.
“Very well then,” Mr. Writingdesk said, and reached out a hand. “We’ll take our winnings and leave.”
“I’m not sure it’s entirely in the spirit of these games to accept this outcome,” said the mushroom, and immediately each person at the table seemed tense, hands ready to leap for the pool of chips and trinkets on the table.
But it was going to be fine, Penny knew. Mr. Raven and Mr. Writingdesk would calm the table down, and against all odds, walk away with a stolen horde of treasures and favors bartered throughout the night.
But then there was a shift. Thunder rumbled that no one could hear but her. A change in the atmosphere, like the weight of a storm passing overhead, drawn by new winds. She shivered to feel it, and her eyes opened wide as she realized where the intangible gravity of her luck now pulled.
It was still crushing her, destiny. It had its boot planted firmly on her throat. She was unlucky. But the unluckiness had changed, she felt, and in it was a choice.
And immediately, inside the Grand Crossroads Hotel casino, the luck changed. Mr. Raven reached out for the middle of the table, and the green man went to bat his hand away with a claw, and Mr. Writingdesk rounded the corner to put himself between them, which caused the dark lady and the mummified corpse to rise into motion. She was not sure who threw the first punch, or the second, or who sent the cards and chips flying with a wayward blow, or who kicked over their chair or flipped the table, because by the time it began, she was already gone.
Marketing - Nice Glasses
There’s a road I’m following. It’s a winding thing, with trees on one side and rocks on the other. I’m tempted to call it a ledge. Is there a difference between rocks and a ledge? I think there’s a neighborhood out there, beneath the trees, buried in green. The real estate market really did take a plunge out here. I’m not sure where I’m going yet, but the flies are leading me on…
Hold up right there now!
That’s far enough. I like your glasses, big lady.
Thank you… I wish I could say the same about… anything you’re wearing.
They look just like the Lady Ethel Mallory ones, you know?
They should. They’re mine. I am Lady Ethel Mallory.
Oh sure. Out for a walk, are you? I guess that makes me Valerie Maidstone.
Was that a joke? It would be funnier if you had a face for show business.
Harsh words! ‘Specially since I can’t see your face at all. How about you start by taking off the glasses, and tossing them up to me on the ledge.
Did I say something funny?
Oh, well, just the idea, since these are worth more than your life’s earnings, you know. Chucking them, it’s… oh. Oh you’re serious.
Well I think they’ll look great on me.
I can’t give them to you. I need them. The sun hurts my eyes, and I don’t even know who you are…
Jesus. Do I need to spell it out for you? This is not a friendly conversation. I don’t care who you are. I am robbing you. You are being robbed. See the gun in my hand? I am taking whatever you’ve got that’s valuable, starting with the shades. And I’d hurry up if I were you, because I’m about to lose my temper.
‘Whoever I am’? I AM Lady Ethel Mallory, the face of the Botulus Corporation, beloved national icon...
You know what? I DO recognize you. The chick on the billboards doesn’t look as scary, but that voice? I remember that voice. It’s been chattering away in my dreams for twenty years…
Finally! An ounce of respect...
You know some people can’t take it? The noise. The no escape from the advertising ever. Some of my buddies, they throw themselves over cliffs just like this. Only way they can get any quiet. But me? I suffer through it, because I promise myself that if I ever meet the Lady responsible, I’ll pay her back. Yeah. I recognize you.
I… it was for a good cause. For the company. For everyone..
Glasses. Now. We’re going to start with the glasses, and if you’re still alive by the time we’re done here, you’ll have reason to thank me.
You think I care about you? About any of your rat companions? You turned your backs on this country. On our dreaming nation. The messages have reached you, apparently! Why couldn’t you just listen? If just a few more people had found us each year my quotas would have been so much better, and…
Yeah I’m done. I’ll peel them off your cold…
Boys? Sic ‘em.
*buzz as Lady Ethel unleashes her flies*
What the hell..? *flies descend upon her, she fires several shots and falls*
*as Angie screams in the background*
You know, you do remind me of Val. Not in the face, but in the sheer disrespect…
Story 2, Continued - Four Grey Walls
Angela ‘Angie’ Burns is still breathing as the flies lift from her skin, beckoned by their mistresses’ call, and they return to their leashes. She wishes that she was not; that unconsciousness had claimed her. She sees only red, and it is the same color as the Lady’s coat, and it fills her with fury, gives her the strength to take one more lungful of air.
But we are not, at this moment, telling a story about Angela ‘Angie’ Burns.
We return now to Penny Rescher.
Penny did not need to run; she walked calmly down the halls of the hotel as the casino exploded into violence behind her. Poker chips clattered, and voices cried and screamed, and a chair splintered, but she did not worry. She felt intuitively which doors to walk through, which halls to traverse to reach the main entrance, because her luck had changed indeed.
Always unlucky. Always expecting the worst, and given it. That had not changed; what was ahead of her, she could only assume, would be as miserable as the life she had led up to that point. But there was a key difference, one that motivated her to chase the new and unfortunate focus, fall headlong into that awful gravity.
There was something new. Something worse, out there, than spending the rest of her life as a prisoner of Misters Raven and Writingdesk. Something out there, in the dark shadows of trees on the horizon, that could hurt her more. And it called her now, and she followed willingly, for at least she would be alone. Any unlucky fate without those two leading her like a captured animal was better, in her opinion.
Maybe it was death by a thousand daggers. Maybe it was giant spiders, which she hated. Maybe it was a new cage. But she had a choice, and she would take the fire over the frying pan for the rest of her days.
She stepped into the room with the front desk, half expected to see that huge machine with the red armor and the glass head, but the room was empty. She said nothing, and turned for the exit, pushed through the revolving glass door into the cool embrace of the night.
She stopped on the other side of it; leaning near the entrance was a tall person wearing a black leather jacket, face covered in black-stitched seams. They said nothing; only waved with a handful of fingers like knives. Penny waved back in equal silence, and then continued to walk; her black doll-like shoes over gravel and wet mud and long black grass, away from the golden lights of the hotel, into the yawning night beyond.
She pulled her grey cloak around her, and held in it a hope—that whatever the evil she was about to face, whatever new horror awaited, that maybe her sister would be waiting at the heart of it. This night, this forest, she thought, is mine. I choose it, for better or for worse. Unluckily, for worse.
Interlude 2 - Wake Up
I am stretched so thin, dreamer.
There is much afoot, at this moment. And much at stake. It is not lost on me that the moments I choose to share with you will color this narrative, your perception of what is even now unfolding while you sleep. I share these dreams to those who sleep across this universe for a purpose, and it seemed so simple to me at first what I must do. But now, I am less sure.
I thought myself to be an ever-present narrator, a voice in the silence, heard but never seen. In all places at once, known in none. But my thinking on this has been somewhat swayed. Old Afterclaps, that ancient auditor of flame, left an impression on me with his words. I am beginning to wonder if I can avoid being complicit in this. If in the act of sharing these words with you, I am already altering the outcome of their story.
I am with you now, watching over your bed as you sleep. Earlier today I am with Angie, bleeding into the dirt in California as Lady Ethel Mallory disappears into the distance. I am with Percy Reed, who clutches inside the compartment of his chest a silver locket he did not wish to bet in a poker game, for it is all he truly has. I am with Cindy Lockheart, preparing to go on an expedition, praying that she will find in the abyss at the end of the world some semblance of her wife left living, unturned like the lips and mind of Diggory Graves. I am with Polly, who runs for the casino of the Grand Crossroads Hotel to try and break up a fight. I am with Mx. Morrell, who is returning to the museum with their undead company, plans to spend the night sorely dashed. I am with Mort, who is at this moment sleeping where he has hidden, in the laundry room of the Grand Crossroads. He likes to curl among the towels when he is upset, and let the hum of the washing machines lull him to sleep. They remind him of the crashing ocean waves.
He sleeps as the Museum begins to rise on its great armored legs, the furnaces blazing brightly as the windows flicker to life.
He dreams of the fish, and of going North with new friends. He dreams of a box at the bottom of the ocean, so big and intricate that it is for him a temple. He dreams of a beach of bones, and a woman standing upon it, warning him, beckoning him.
This is your future, Mort, and it is slipping away from you. All of that which you dream about, which you barely know you are seeking, is there, a moment’s grasp away, and yet you are dreaming. By the time you wake, it will be long gone. You will mourn the opportunity a little, but you will never truly know what it would have meant to you, how it would have changed you. You would resent your caretakers, for a morning or an afternoon, until the past is forgotten in the busy assortment of present tasks and reservations and event nights.
And although I do not know the future, I suspect one year would not be enough. Or two, or three. Because Polly and Yaretzi, these people love you dearly, and they are loathe to let you go. And by that time, years or decades past, it will be too late. The secrets of your past buried again in the north, with the bodies of those you might have learned to call friends, a world that might have been saved had you been there.
Would you want to wake, Mort? Would you chase after them? Would you rise, if you knew what was slipping away?
Perhaps it is for the best, that you dream. For you are harrowed by bad omens, and I cannot guarantee the journey would end well even if you did go. But I am certain it will fail without your part in this.
The museum begins to move. A grinding motion at first, one chitinous leg in front of the other.
I have to do this.
If there was a moment, where I had to, dreamer, I think it is now.
Mort. Mort. Wake up. The museum is leaving. Run. Run.
Outro - Crossroads
...I did something, dreamers.
I have done much so far, in the sense that I have stood at the scene of the action, relayed to you what has been said, allowed my voice to echo in dream to sleeping minds across this universe.
But tonight, I have done something myself. I have place a hand upon one of the many pieces on this board, and I have pushed it a few inches to the left. I hope I will not come to regret this.
Because right now, Mort wakes in a laundry room, and feels like he is missing something. He rises, and he runs, through the winding halls, stops only for a moment before plunging through the turning doors of the Grand Crossroads Hotel, and sees a museum of gold and brass disappearing into the night. He looks back on the hotel, on its beautiful lights, and feels a little rebellion.
They think he is not big enough. They think he is not ready. He will prove to them different. He will find out who he used to be, and he will help Diggory finish a mission that once belonged to him, and when he comes back to the front desk, Polly and Yaretzi will understand that he is grown up, and they will be so proud.
There is a cry as a dead seagull flies through the spinning doors, and sails overhead as Mort begins to run after the museum, breaks a promise to be a good employee, a good son, and clambers up a dangling ladder as the Museum of Broken Promises sails into the night.
By the time Polly or Yaretzi begin to wonder where he is, it is already morning, and there is only a bellboy cap left in the laundry room, and a note scrawled across the reservation book - capital B, home soon.
What have I done, dreamers?
What have I done?
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Bargain', 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!