Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Bert as usual), Abuse, Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Body Horror
Intro - The Singular You
If there was a time when you was a singular word, you do not remember it. It is hard to imagine a different kind of being than the one you have now—conjoined in soul, fused in spirit. Two heads held close, four trembling hands, four uncertain feet, one animal.
You cannot breathe, for they are half your lungs. You cannot see a future without them, for they are half of the delicate rings of your irises. You would be no more in their absence, for all that you are, you invented to more perfectly fit their shape.
It is only now, when you are torn, when they are gone, that you must confront what is left of you. A sickly thing, unformed and half-finished, laying upon the earth. You stand, alone for the first time, and the road ahead beckons you with a Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I stand in a boiler room. Its great furnaces sizzle with fire beyond the heat of human flame, and they do not only keep the rooms warm, but fuel the existence of the hotel above. The furnaces burn almost as hot as the temper of the flower-clad figure pacing in front of them. The theme of tonight’s episode is Dependencies.
Story 1 - Better Or Weaker
The flames danced with each of Polly’s steps; the fire of souls burned bright within, ran through molded pipes into the ceiling like veins, wound through the rooms and haunted the baths. The fire spent itself each day, but that was the cost to be paid for luxury—and his trove would last a long while yet.
When things began to get scarce, he assured himself, he would find some new way to get by—he had not adopted Barb’s policy of stealing souls from customers. What a way to kill repeat business, he’d think. But he did not dwell on these things this morning; he dwelt on the mushroom proprietor and the dead stranger with too many souls, and a boy locked in silver.
“I will set them all on fire,” he said. “And relish their screams.”
“Will you now,” Yaretzi said, largely human. She sat in her business slacks on the steps of the boiler room, a sleeveless undershirt, hands on her knees.
“Tear out their bones,” he said. “Use their souls for kindling.”
“Flay their hides and turn them into fine leathers,” Yaretzi yawned.
“Yes, quite,” Polly said, and pivoted to the small hairy woman. “You don’t seem very upset about Mort being kidnapped.”
“If he had been, then I would be,” she said, and picked up his suit jacket. He’d tossed it on the stairs in a burst of frustration. She straightened out the rumples as he spoke.
“What is that supposed to mean?” he said. “Are you saying his disappearance is unrelated to the trio of nosey strangers who showed up and tried to drag him along on their death quest?”
“I am saying that he wanted to go, and you said no. And he left anyway,” she said, and twirled the jacket around onto her shoulders, pulled the locks of her hair over the lapels. “Are you angry at them for inviting him, or at him for going without your permission?”
“I can’t believe you’re advocating for splitting up our family,” Polly said. “That is what it is, more or less, after all. He is not safe with them, despite all the armor. Something could happen to him. We don’t know what is out there. He might get hurt…”
“I am not trying to split our family,” Yaretzi growled, and fur flickered across her face and arms, teeth a flash sharper. “Do not put words in my mouth. I have had a family before. And I know that sometimes, people must go out and do things for themselves. They will get hurt, but it will help them grow. We cannot protect Mort forever. He must learn to protect himself.”
“Oh? Oh good. Because that worked out so well for your last family,” Polly said, and paused; he had a cold shiver that indicated he’d gone too far. There was a rip of fabric, and he looked up to find Yaretzi a huge wolf, black as the shadow of the boiler room and encompassing half its space, golden rings and beads glittering in her fur. His jacket lay beneath her paws in two pieces.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I misspoke…”
The wolf loomed close and large, then, teeth shining in black gums, eyes dark, and he was reminded that her feast of choice was the blood of demons, and that her contract with him was long fulfilled.
“You think it is easy for me?” she growled. “To let him go? It is harder for me than you, I think, because I have lost before, and lost so many. Do not invoke them lightly, Apollyon. Their names are precious to me, and their spirits run with Tolshotol in his fields of light.
If Mort was taken against his will, if he was with those who meant to do him harm, I would already be there to tear them apart and quench my thirst with their blood. But he wished to go. And he has done this. And I will try to find peace with his decision, because I know it is best for him. What will you do?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Polly huffed, and produced his umbrella with a shower of sparks, tapped it on the ground. “But it isn’t going to be pretty.”
As he spoke, he opened a door in space, pulled himself through a vortex of hurtling flame, stars cascading in dizzying spirals, and emerged far away from the hotel, on the marshy earth at the edge of the forest—the first copses of black pines jutting from pools of water too dark for the sun to illuminate.
The air was brisk on his skin, a shock of cold from a world almost ready for snow. He stared at the pines, and knew that they stared back. He twirled the umbrella in his hands.
“Fear me,” he muttered to the trees. “I may be a destroyer of worlds, but any cut of good timber would do for a start.”
The trees said nothing in reply. It was into that dark expanse that Mort had gone, and although his old jacket and his book were lost, he could track Mort down within a matter of hours. Tell him to look away while he incinerated those so-called friends, haul him back to the Grand Crossroads, have everything like it was just yesterday…
But it would not be the same, Polly thought. Because Mort would have run out into the world and gotten a taste for it. And to be told ‘no’? To have Polly’s suede shoe on his metaphorical neck? To be pulled back and put to work tending the desk and the guest ledgers again?
Had Typhon sat at his desk once and wondered the same sort of thing about Polly, one cane short from his umbrella stand? What had Tiff decided? What had come of it?
He looked up to the trees.
“You’re lucky,” he called. “That I’m better. Or weaker. I’m not sure which, yet.”
The trees still said nothing; a light breeze wafted in their dark boughs.
“I’m keeping an eye on you,” he said.
He turned away, and departed in a twist of flame; left only a few trailing embers in the chill air, and a hungry forest, and somewhere not terribly far away, a friend running away from his home.
Interlude 1 - Needs The Rain
The forest needs the rain. It drinks deeply of that black water, lets it pool in lakes and marshes, bathes in its dark love and splendor. So too, the farmers for their increasingly strange crops, harbor desperate strains to sustain what humanity still wakes.
The Dry Market needs their goods, passes coffee and salvaged tool and gasoline and solar panel to the needy few. The Scoutpost and Webequie First Nation and the Blackwood Coven need the market, for the foraging is doubtful and the hunting a danger in this vengeful wood.
They gather these things in their meager hoards, and rarely stop to wonder—is it a useless fight that they have undertaken? To persist in their crafts and farms and holidays as the hour grows late for their kind? They do not know it, but they need me, if that hope is to make any change at all, more than a flicker in a dying world.
And I need this forest. To give me comfort. To give me strength. To give me reassurance for what I must do.
We go now to one who is finding how their edges bleed into another.
Story 2 - Old Bones
“Have you ever been in a museum, Mort?” Diggory said. They stood at the elbow of the armored giant; he had to stoop to fit the dome of his diving apparatus through some doors of the Museum of Broken Promises.
“I remember a place that looked a lot like this,” Mort said. “It was on a beach, and there weren’t any shelves or roofs. But the piles of stuff were kind of the same.”
The room they found themselves in was filled with toys; little wooden ships and dead-eyed puppets, a dragon with eyes that could pivot in its sockets, a wooden polar bear, a rocking horse. A merry-go-round of carved animals sat in the dim light at the back of the room, and near each item was an accompanying plaque carrying a promise long forgotten.
“Things That Watch Me Sleep, An Alphabet of Nightmares by Mary Strix, daughter of Margaret Strix. Promised her daughter there is no such thing as monsters,” said Percy from the far side of the room; he could almost be a clockwork toy himself. “It’s a picture book… I have to say, I’m not totally sure on what the criteria is for a museum-worthy promise.”
“I might have broken one,” Mort said, and his skull bubbled a little lower in his water-filled dome. “I didn’t tell my family that I was going to go.”
“It’s good to sneak out once in a while,” Percy said, and thumbed through the book in his silver hands. “They can’t tie you down forever. Well, they can, but they shouldn’t. Best case scenario.”
“I wish I had been allowed to speak with your guardian more, although he was adamant I leave his grounds,” Diggory said. “I am sorry if I am responsible for your separation.”
“I’m responsible,” Mort said, and bumped his dome on a mobile featuring a dozen hanging wooden fish. “I chose to go. I had a dream, and I woke up, and I decided. I just hope they don’t worry about me while I’m gone.”
“Well with you on board this whole trip might go a lot easier,” Percy shrugged, and set the book back on its stand. “Cindy can finally relax a little.”
Diggory nodded, and stooped to examine the plaque for a curious item, a plastic visor in a glass case.
“Prototype Dreaming Visor, 2025, by Oswald Biggs Botulus,” Diggory said. “Promised he would always be there for his son. Did you know Mr. Botulus had a son, Percy?”
Percy did not respond, and Diggory turned to find him holding a little plastic dragon in each hand.
“Uh, no. News to me,” Percy said, and there was a flicker in his eyes, but then again, he was always hard to read lately. “Look at these—they’re from that game Walt liked. I wasn’t allowed to have these growing up.”
“Were they dangerous?” Mort said; Diggory noticed there was a seagull roosting between his shoulder plate and his chassis. It stared at them with a yellow eye.
“If you asked my parents, yes,” Percy said. “You can’t play games that summon demons. And besides, dragons are like dinosaurs, and dinosaurs were satan’s attempt to corrupt earthly life. Let’s watch a three-hour DVD series about it…”
“Is this a dinosaur?” Mort said, and pointed with his claw at a plastic brontosaurus in a case.
“Oh buddy,” Percy said. “You’re in for a treat.”
“I used to find bones,” Diggory said, and stared at the floor; it drifted like ocean waves in their vision. “In the ice. Things hidden there. They were freed as the glaciers melted. I led expeditions.”
They made their way over to where Mort stood; looked on the plastic animal. ‘Toy Brontosaurus gifted by Ruth Esther Barnes,’ the plaque read. ‘Promised her nephew that he would grow up to be a great explorer.’
“It is curious,” Diggory said. “I remember such joy from those discoveries, even though the melting ice meant such destruction was coming. Was it wrong, I wonder, to savor those moments in the face of calamity?”
“I don’t like clams,” Mort said. “They’re not as fun to watch as fish.”
“Clams are gross,” Percy said, and frowned at his dragons, and replaced them on a pedestal. “I don’t know what else you can do. Sit around and be sad? If you can’t change it, why sweat it?”
“We can change it,” Diggory said, and watched their own reflection in the glass, pale and directionless eyes, stitches in thick channels, black hair in swirling strands. “We are changing it.”
“That’s right,” Mort said, and his green flame eyes perked up. “We’re gonna stop the harp!”
“And when we’re done,” Percy said, and came to stand beside Diggory, took their sharp hand in his, “These are the things we’ll have fought for. To keep having them.”
What am I fighting for, Diggory thought? For myself? For the ghost of the boy who haunts me? For my friends? My old selves? Although they matter so, what is in my chest, beneath the seems, calling me north, burning on the horizon like an ever-living flame?
“I do hope you’ve been enjoying the exhibits, everyone,” a voice said from the far door, and Diggory looked up to find a person wrapped in mushrooms and tweed. Mx. Morrell fixed their dark glasses as they spoke. “But I would get your affairs in order—we have almost arrived at the Scoutpost, and will shortly bid our goodbyes.”
Marketing - Finally Raining
It’s raining. Thank god. I don’t know if you can hear it on the dreamcaster, but it’s raining, and I am… so thirsty. It’s tantalizing, really.
I’m in a shed, or a garage or something. I don’t know what all these tools are for. But the ceiling is big, and my boys are flying around in the rafters, and I can taste the water dripping down.
I know it’s bad for me. The water, in some way or another. It began with little things. A bump that wasn’t there before, a little hair loss, dry skin that wouldn’t go away. I thought I had eczema. I tried all the creams. The water helped take away the thirst. The irritation. And when it wasn’t enough, the concentrate, well…
The little changes really add up over time. I’m a whole different person, now. I’m not sure what I am.
I killed a number of people this week. I should feel bad about that. But I don’t. There’s a numbness there, like there’s a shell on my skin, on my feelings. My mother didn’t raise a murderer. But here we are.
But I’m not the only one… that old man, with the house and the instruments. He loves the rain too. I could feel it, see it in his eyes.
You know? He saw me too. He had no idea that I worked for the Botulus Corporation or was a world famous marketing professional. He didn’t care. And I think he’s the one person who ever liked me for who I was.
I wonder how he’s doing. Marco said his house was destroyed by locals, and I had what I needed by then, but…
I wonder if he’s still out there?
If he would still think I was beautiful?
If he’s made a new house, maybe? Somewhere nice, with high ceilings?
You know what’s strange is, I made so very few friends outside the Prime Dream… he might be the only one I have.
Maybe I should pay him a visit.
After all, I have nowhere else to go…
Story 2, Continued - Old Bones
Have you truly fallen so low, my obnoxious nemesis? Has all other motive deserted you? If you undertake such a walk, fully the breadth of a continent, I suggest you stop broadcasting it. People can hear you, and you will only embarrass yourself.
We return now to Diggory Graves.
When Mx. Morrell bade them goodbye, it was not a dramatic affair—a handshake, a good luck and godspeed, a final weary smile. Has Rothogroth still been loud in your head, Diggory wondered? Does he still command you to silence me before I deprive him of his lifeblood? It was not a goodbye at all, Diggory thought; it was a see-you-soon, although whether Diggory would return to the museum as a living resident, or as broken pieces in a glass case, they did not know. They suspected Mx. Morrell would be equally pleased either way.
Then the museum was rising into the forest on its great black pincer legs, and Diggory stood with two metal-clad dead in the entry road to the Scoutpost, a little before sunset. No interrogation held them at the gates, and by the time the heavy doors swung open, a crowd had gathered to receive them—Bern, and Violet sitting in a chair, looking relieved, and Riot and Olivier and Clementine and Danielle in an excitable rush, and above them all Cindy with her arms crossed. Diggory matched eyes with her once, through the crowd.
I used to love you, they thought. I loved the way you broke each obstacle in your path into a list of manageable tasks; the way you made me feel like no problem was ever insurmountable, your strong opinions, your loyalty, the way you held me. I loved you so much I left you behind, that if I died, you could carry on without me.
They looked to Percy, whose silver shell was wrapped in a hug from Riot.
Did I make a mistake back then, they wondered? Or am I making the mistake now, in bringing the ones I care for to confront my destiny?
Before they had time to find an answer, they were swept into the Scoutpost, and the doors closed on the woods behind them, and a warm dinner was served at a table in the Scoutpost cafeteria, kind words from Cookery Potts as bowls were distributed to every table. Diggory held the soup bowl in their hands, and wished they could ever truly feel the warmth of it, something other than the arctic chill in their bones. Percy, Olivier, and the Maidstone sisters crowded the benches.
“So where did you find this guy?” Riot said, and gestured to Mort, who sat on the ground at the end of the table, as far away from the courtyard bonfire as possible. The light gleamed on his glass dome. “I might have seen you before. I like your stickers.”
“Thank you,” said Mort. “They found me at the Grand Crossroads Hotel. I work there. When guests come in I give them the key and say ‘your room is number three’, or which room is on the key. Then when they leave I say ‘how was your stay’ and take the key back. I like my job.”
“Wow. Really pushing the envelope there,” Danielle remarked; she sat cross-legged in her wheelchair across from Mort.
“You were gone for days,” Riot said, and looked up to Diggory, frowned. “We could have used your help. Cindy’s been breathing down my neck. Violet and Bern keep giving us extra things to pack. And my mom is freaking out that I’m going.”
“I have gained some information that I think will benefit our mission,” Diggory said. “It was important that I…”
“My friends are freaking out too, I bet,” said Mort. “That I’m going on this trip. But I’m ready. I can be a help.”
“You seem like you could carry a lot,” Olivier remarked, and sipped a spoonful of soup. Their cape swirled with grey clouds. “Maybe I could pack an extra book or two…”
They were elbowed slightly in the ribs by Riot.
“Point is,” Riot said, “Cindy’s got us leaving on this expedition tomorrow. Like early tomorrow. Like at sunrise tomorrow, which is six hours before my day usually starts. And I just need to know if you two… you three… are coming.”
“I’m going,” said Mort.
“Obviously, I’m in,” Percy noted.
“And I,” Diggory said, and crossed their knife-tipped fingers, “will see this through to the end. We will put a stop to this heart, this great machine. I will complete the work that my past selves long ago began. And I promise I will bring you all home safe.”
After all, they thought, as their friends celebrated, and the packing stretched late into the night, and the excitable greetings faded away into dread silence, what is one more broken promise?
Interlude 2 - Hard To Escape
There have been moments of great rage and rebellion when I have thought, I will run, I will go somewhere in this universe that no one else dwells. I will start afresh, and no one shall recognize my presence there, remember my history. But it is not always so simple.
There is no sun that Tolshotol does not desire, no world of burgeoning life that Syrensyr has not documented and categorized for development. There are still a few secrets unturned by Xyzikxyz, but she assures me she is working on them. Everywhere I go, there is someone’s influence, footprints across the nebulaic dust of the universe.
I can never truly be rid of them, although I would sometimes like to be. And someday I will have to confront them all again. Pass them by, at least, in a galaxy or a vacuous crater. Someday I must learn how to do that with civility. Learn how not to shatter in their wake.
I am a ways from that, yet, and your sun still burns, and there is a story for me first to finish.
We go now to one concerned with their familial relationships.
Story 3 - A Quiet Knocking
Clementine knocked on the door, and waited for a few moments. Had she knocked too quietly? Or was she being ignored? If the former, could she knock again without causing a stir loud enough that the Scoutpost night watchers would notice? If the latter, would it be rude to knock a second time? Or perhaps it was just too late in the night. Even so, she knocked again, a tiny bit louder, and hoped it was the right thing to do.
There was a thump of footsteps on the other side, and the door swung open a few inches. Riot peered from the room beyond, face red and blotched.
“Sorry,” Clementine said. “If it’s a bad time I can go.”
“What do you need, Clem?” Riot said, and leaned in the doorway.
“No, it’s alright,” said Clementine. They both stood a few moments, and Riot swung the door open, gestured. Clementine nodded and stepped inside. A large backpack leaned against her bed, a pile of coats and scavenged outerwear. The last of the packing for the trip, she’d imagine. She sat in a birch chair in the corner, and Riot closed the door, went back to sit on the edge of the bed.
“Well?” Riot said, and rubbed at her nose. “What’s up?”
“I used to wish there was only one of us,” Clementine said. “But there’s not.”
Then the words stopped coming. Riot nodded sagely, and frowned. “Is that what you came in here to say, or do you want to try again?”
Clementine nodded, and put her hands together, studied the assemblage of camping gear on the floor.
“I used to wish there was only one of us,” she repeated. “And I would lay awake hating you, and I’d wish that I could have mom all to myself, that I could be the person everyone thought I was.”
She looked up to her twin, who regarded her with furrowed brows.
“And now I’m terrified that it might actually be that way. So please don’t die. I don’t want to be the only Riot Maidstone anymore. And it would break mom’s heart, even if she’s trying not to show you that right now. Please come back safe.”
Clementine scrubbed tears from her eyes, and found that Riot was doing much the same. She moved to sit beside her on the bed, leaned against her shoulder.
“I’m scared,” Riot whispered. “I really am. I’m trying to be brave. I’m trying to do what Walt would do, and to be a good friend, and I know that if I can pull this off it’ll be legendary. But I’m not made of metal or wood or lightning. They can’t sew me back together.”
Clementine nodded, but Riot continued before she could interject.
“But if something does happen to me? If I get caught in an avalanche or a pitfall somewhere, if the heart thing is protected by an army of ghosts or wild animals or evil birds or something, if I don’t come back? Mom’s going to be in good hands. And I know that because you’ll be here. And I trust you.”
Riot lifted her arm from Clementine and went to fish in the top of her backpack; retrieved a dirty white baseball cap with ‘Walter Pensive’s Groundskeeping’ embroidered in the front, and handed it to her.
“I’m not going to be a groundskeeper,” Clementine said, as she took the hat in her hands. “It’s not my thing.”
“I know,” Riot said, and sat beside her again, put a hand on hers. “You’ve got your own thing going. I’m glad you do. As much as Violet and Berne and the rest need people to help keep them safe, they also need scouts. People who fit in. People who can farm and cook and clean and salvage and take care of each other. But just hang on to this for me, until I get back. Keep it safe.”
“I can do that,” Clementine said, and put it on backwards; it worked better with her mullet that way. “But do come back. I want to be handing this back to you in the spring, okay?”
“Deal,” Riot said, and hugged her, and Clementine allowed herself to be held for a moment, a clinging like the darkness of Faust’s laboratory.
“I’ll let you get some sleep, then,” Clementine said, and stood up.
“Sleep’s probably not going to happen,” Riot sighed, and rubbed at her face, and smiled. “But thanks. I feel better, a little. About leaving.”
“Well,” Clementine said, “if it helps, at least they won’t miss your face around the Scoutpost.”
Riot laughed, and might have started to say something rude in response, but by then Clementine had closed the door, and half-jogged for her room upstairs of Violet and Bern, hid in her blankets.
She did not sleep through the few remaining hours either; merely rolled in bed until the pale morning light shone frostlike at her windows, and the ringing bell of the lookout tower told her that the front doors were opening, and the expedition was about to leave.
Outro - Dependencies
I have changed, dreamer. Not far, and not with grace. But I am different than I was a few million years ago. You would not have known me, for I would not have humbled myself to speak to a kind like yours. And I was preoccupied, not a star burning of its own accord, but a planet caught in another’s gravity. My orbit was not stable; it spiraled and fell, and sometimes we passed so close to each other that I thought we might become irrevocably intertwined, collapse in on each other until only the weight of our desperation remained, pulling in all light.
I thought at that time that we were two halves of a whole. But I have come to understand that he was whole already, and his trajectory never altered. I was never so heavy as he was.
Speaking for myself, telling stories to a dark and slumbering cosmos, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting reliably for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Old Wounds', 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!