Content warnings for this episode include: Eye injuries, Abuse, Animal death (Heidi and Bert as usual), Suicide, Violence, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror
Intro - Nightmare In Terminal X
Your flight has been delayed. This troubles you only because it means that many more hours before you see them again. It may still be a shorter interval by far than the months you have spent apart, but you can only think about how the time between you has just doubled. The next flight is tonight, they whisper in huddled groups around the ticket counter, but that may be delayed too, what with the storm. You sit on an uncomfortable bench, listen to the thunderous voices within, and the patter of the rain black as night on the window.
You can see the planes out on the tarmac battered by the wind—and something else. Pilots and baggage haulers, ramp agents and passengers, walking calmly away from the terminal, towards the runway, towards the night, lit only by flashing red lights and arcs of lightning that spell Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now I sit among the gravestones of a flooded cemetery. Stone angels and cherubs reach with outstretched arms, although for what, I do not know. Their eyes are turned high from the lowly creature that writhes through the mud, crawling one inch at a time for the water, almost a corpse himself. The theme of tonight’s episode is Departures.
Story 1 - Lazarus
Rick Rounds was not well. This much he could feel in every bone, some of them missing. The devil had pulled all the fire from his veins, sucked the angelic flame from his skin, and he was only embers now, the aftermath of a wildfire—and wildfires, he knew from Mrs. Wicker’s classes, caused green things to grow back stronger. His personal vegetation was the growth that covered the stump of his left hand, already sprouting new thorny fingers, crawling up beneath his skin into his flowering shoulder and chest.
Is it just going to grow over me faster, he wondered, now that the fire is gone? What’ll happen to me then? Going out of his gourd would be alright, he thought. At least then he wouldn’t know he was starving.
He pulled himself a few more feet on his good arm, into the black pool of grime that dwelt between the funeral flagstones. The water was cool on his shredded arm, shocking on his face, cold in the autumn chill. Dark as ink, yes, but still water, and he figured if he lived he could deal with any diseases he might catch. He drank, and scrubbed mud from his face as he sat, pulled twigs and soil from the ragged beard that had sprouted on his chin.
He lowered his face into the murk, and rubbed at his eyes beneath the water. In the darkness was buck, smiling a sheepish grin—not at something Rick had said, though. He didn’t smile much when Rick was around. Mrs. Wicker’s grin as she threw him out of Fort Freedom. The devil, turning his back, walking away. You’ve forged your chains, Rick Rounds, he’d said. Carry them far away from me. I can’t carry them anymore, Rick thought, and resisted as his lungs burned and told him to rise. I’ve got nowhere else to crawl.
There was a sudden jolt of movement, then, and he felt something like a bony hand stir in the mud, wrap around his ankle above his boot. He shrieked, and kicked up out of the water, fought for the surface. The claw around his ankle would not let go, and he could feel more of them now, scraping at his skin beneath the water. He kicked with his other foot, and lost his boot entirely as his ankle came free. He paddled back, rose onto the bank, and the water seethed and boiled as pale things rose after him.
They were dead, he was sure, but not the ethereal sleepers of the lakes in the black wood. The unquiet dead; the reason you burned your friends instead of burying them. And the figure, half bone, caked in blackened flesh and mossy clothes, jaw hanging open like a busted bear trap, was unquiet indeed.
“Lazarus,” it rasped, and stepped through the shallows towards him. It had eyes like a dead fish, turned upwards as if in prayer. “Come out. Come out!”
He stumbled back and slipped on the muddy bank, and tried to brace his fall with the hand that was mostly brambles. The thing calling Lazarus was almost standing over him, then, and its hands were claws roped with flesh, trembling in reverence. Behind it, two more were rising from the water, casting away splinters of their drowned coffins.
“Stay the hell away from me!” Rick grunted, and kicked at the dead thing’s leg as it drew near; it avoided his swipe with puppetlike grace, stooped over him. It grinned as if enlightened, and its eyes rolled down to fix upon him.
“Your head is a tomb,” whispered Lazarus. “It must be opened, to let the light in.”
It reached for his face, then, with one gnarled hand, and he fought back with his good hand, held the shaking claw a few inches away from his face, and grunted as he tried to push it away—it was strong, stronger than it had any right to be. He looked up to its face, still seething with mysterious purpose. It was the second-last thing he saw, with the last being the other claw reaching into his eye.
The agony was, like the wound, blinding, and he heard himself scream so loud it drowned all noise. He writhed beyond his own control, but could not shake the branding-iron grasp, the claws of the grave that dissolved his flesh like jelly.
It came, then, to a shuddering end, and he felt his body thud back onto the beach. The pain was constant, but the pressure of the unquiet dead above him was missing. He could barely see out of his other eye—it had been clouded since Big Mikey scratched it half a lifetime ago—but he thought he saw the thing’s head, rolling down the bank into the water, where its body floated.
A shadow was cast over him, and he tilted his head up, saw in blurred shapes the head of an animal staring down—a horse, or a mule or some similar beast, with white eyes and skin overgrown with lichen, dripping with weeds.
Death rides a pale horse, he thought. It should have been here a lot sooner.
And then Rick’s world was not dark or grimy or blood-soaked at all, but as white as death’s eyes, as white as heaven.
Interlude 1 - A Pleasant Day
It is a pleasant day in the Hallowoods, in regards to weather. The sky is a cheerful blue, dotted only occasionally with a voluminous white cloud. There is a light breeze; one that shifts the leaves and needles of the trees, whispers in their boughs, and carries the song of bird and toad far. It is bright and almost warm, in the way you might expect a last day of summer to be. Were it not for the changing colors of the trees, you might not even know it was long past the prime of autumn.
It is an unpleasant day in the Hallowoods, in regards to goodbyes, for there are many of them to make for the people of the Scoutpost. The doors of their root-grown fortress are open, and the members of an expedition take up their bags, and hope that all their goodbyes will be followed in the near future with so-glad-to-see-yous and I-missed-yous and how-were-things-while-I-was-gones.
We go now to one trying to say goodbye.
Story 2 - Back In A Jiffy
Eight in total. Ten if you counted a seagull, half decomposed and twice as loud as the usual kind, and a German Shepherd in the opposite ratio. Five if you counted people who needed to eat rations and drink water along the way.
Riot ran through her friends again as she hauled her pack for the gate; it was still too heavy, she thought, but with a sword strapped to the back and a blank journal inside, it wasn’t going to get much lighter than this.
Olivier had his hair tied back, and in a fashion she was unused to seeing, had taken off his cloak and rolled it into a bundle that sat atop his bag. He looked modern without it, an aspect of him she found fresh and exciting. Bern was giving him an inspirational talking-to; after all, it was from her library that he’d chosen his books for the trip.
The books were being carried by the new acquaintance, Mort, who was huge and red and possibly comprised of a friend of a friend of her mother’s, she’d been informed. The Scoutpost’s resident Trailblazer Virgil was seeing him off, although whether out of interest or because he thought Mort was a security risk, she could not say.
Jonah hugged his mother, counseled her about something in low tones. His bright yellow Scoutpost jacket and boots and hat were much the same as always, and he carried a collection of dangling pans around his pack. Beside him, Hector comforted his one living hound, a final pat between the ears and a scratch beneath the chin. The real goodbye, she suspected, was to his shiny black motorcycle. Buck, the scrawny man who’d come from Fort Freedom, stood nearby, but if he wanted to say something, he did not muster it.
Percy had no goodbyes to make, it seemed, and stood near the doors looking ready to be on his way. Riot was surprised that the little ghost boy Al wasn’t here to see him off—but then again, it was the early morning, and as she didn’t spot Russell McGowan anywhere either, it was possible they were still mid-sleepover somewhere. Could there be an age gap between ghosts, she wondered?
The only dead Percy’s age seemed to be Diggory, who at this particular moment was hugging their way through the six other Mendies. Each one whispered a little warning or an omen or something. She thought about having knives for fingers, and shuddered. Trying to trim her nails was bad enough.
Cindy stood near the gate, arms crossed. She did not seem aggrieved to be going—perhaps only to leave her helicopter in the Scoutpost’s vehicle lot, painted as it was with all the logos and emblems of the Stonemaiden band. And it was her mother who was absent from the crowd. Riot watched the inner ramps and walkways of the Scoutpost for her, even as Clementine pushed Danielle in her direction.
“So hey,” Danielle said, still in purple wool pajamas, bare feet on her wheelchair pedals. “I know you’ll miss my charming sense of humor, but don’t worry, you’ll survive without me. And I’ll be in your dreams if you need anything.”
“Thanks,” Riot grunted as she knelt down for a hug, and Danielle squeezed the wind out of her. “Holy crap. You’re getting strong.”
“Let’s just say Mrs. McGowan is a great physical therapist,” Danielle said, and inspected her nails.
“Sure she is,” Riot muttered, although it was probably true, given her track record with Riot’s arm and Violet’s leg. Beside Danielle’s chair, Clementine looked a bit like a possum in headlights; her face spoke to a lack of sleep.
“I already said…” Clementine began, and Riot nodded. No need to make her repeat it. She pulled Clementine in for another hug; it was odd to hug someone exactly the same height as she was.
“Where’s mom?” Riot said.
“I… don’t know if she’s coming,” Clem said, and looked down. Riot already knew it, but it did not lessen the pain of hearing it; a rib-breaking punch to the gut.
“If she’s trying to stop me from going, it won’t happen,” Riot said. The tears already burned hot in her cheeks.
“I think she just doesn’t want to lose you,” Clementine said. “When you just got back together.”
“Hey, must be nice to have someone who cares,” Danielle added.
“If she cared, she’d at least come and say goodbye,” Riot said, and got almost to the end of the sentence before her throat choked up.
“She does care,” Clem started, and Riot thought about dashing up the Scoutpost ramps, barging into her mom’s room… to say what? Demand a hug, a goodbye? Repeat all the things that had come tumbling out wrong in their last argument? Cindy was shouting, now, calling for the group to depart, goodbyes to wrap up, the march to begin. Riot rubbed her nose on her arm, and nodded to Danielle, to Clementine.
“Tell her not to worry about me,” she said, and fixed her backpack straps. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
And she turned, then, followed after Mort’s bobbing red heap of armor through the great gates of the Scoutpost into the morning light.
A jiffy, she thought. What a stupid last word.
Marketing - She's Back
I have good news, everyone: today is going to be a wonderful day. I’m manifesting it.
I feel so much better after the rain—not just because all the aches have gone away, but because I’ve had an epiphany. I really have. Lady Ethel Mallory needs a purpose. I always work best when there’s a goal to achieve. When I have spare time, I never know what to do with myself… I might be one of the few people who actually suffers during vacation.
So I’m going all-in on my new project, which is to go find my old friend in Ontario. Imagine his surprise when I drop in! He’ll be so pleased. And I will get to experience our beautiful country along the way. It’s been so long since I travelled on the ground, you know? I always see it passing by from hundreds of feet up, and you just don’t get to appreciate it that way.
So mark my words, the Lady you know and love is back, and Ontario here we come…
Story 2, Continued - In A Jiffy
Maybe I should stop responding at all. She cannot possibly find value from sharing all this aloud to the world, except to get a reaction out of me. Tranquility, Nikignik. Her voice is a moment of noise in the eternity of your life.
We return now to Riot Maidstone.
The first hour was spent fighting the urge to cry, and she barely noticed the colored flags passing over her head as they walked from the Scoutpost onto the Northern Artery.
The second hour, when the despair had passed, was spent with a kind of heart-pounding exhilaration, and the breeze calmed her spirits. The group’s walking order changed often, but Cindy and Hector were consistently at the front, Jonah a little behind them. She and Olivier occupied the middle of the pack, with the undead trio bringing up the rear—Hector’s dog followed near to his heels, but the dead seagull floated high over the trees above them.
The third and fourth hours were sweaty, and it began to occur to her that her bag really was too heavy, and so were all her bones, and walking itself could be an act of pain. The trees were all alike, and the road a singular cut through them to the horizon.
The fifth hour, she would have been happier for Big Mikey to haul her around in a burlap sack than for the walk to continue, and she gasped minor gratitudes as Cindy allowed a short break for lunch on the side of the road.
The road was barely drivable now, not nearly as well maintained past the Scoutpost exit. It was around here, she thought, that Olivier had once called a blizzard, and Walt had driven recklessly for the Shuddering Peaks—a glance in the rearview mirror, a spark of silver light, glass shattering in slow motion as his hearse rolled off the road.
There were no ghosts now, outside of her own memory, and Percy with his silver-plated shell. She bit into a sandwich, quenched her thirst from her canteen.
“Easy on your rations,” Cindy said to no one in particular, but probably to her. The woman stalked around the lunch site like a stork looking for frogs to eat. “I’ve tried to budget generously, but you can never be too sure.”
Olivier came to sit on the roadside beside her, clutching his bag.
“What’s wrong?” Riot mused. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost that isn’t Percy.”
“Uh. I’ve got a problem,” Olivier said.
“You just do your business behind a tree. Don’t use three-pointed leaves for toilet paper,” Riot said.
“Not that,” Olivier said, and looked down to his bag. “Look.”
He opened it slightly. What laid within was not a stack of books, but a pair of small green eyes.
“You brought Nimbus?” Riot said, a little too loudly. “Are you crazy? Hector’s dog could eat him.”
“I didn’t bring him,” Olivier said; the tabby stuck its head out of the bag and stared at her. “I swear when I packed this there was no cat.”
“He must have snuck in,” Riot said, and scratched the cat’s chin. It accepted her attentions regally. “Because he wanted a little adventure-wenture.”
“Cindy is going to use him for trail rations,” Olivier said, which prompted a perturbed look from the cat. It was followed by a look of surprise a moment later, however, as a crash in the trees caught Riot off guard.
The cat hopped out of the bag, and immediately Riot was on her feet, drew her sword from her backpack where it lay.
“What is that?” Percy called.
“Could be a night-gaunt,” Riot said.
“Are they susceptible to silver?” Cindy asked, glanced between her and Hector.
“Doesn’t make any sense,” Hector remarked, as the crashing in the trees grew louder. “Their territory’s usually further north by a few clicks. And they don’t come out in the middle of the day.”
There was a rending of the trees beside the road, then, and a huge shape towered between two pines. A twisted face leered from fifteen feet up, with a flattened batlike nose, an array of jaggedy yellow teeth, eyes that burned like green embers in black pits, scars from the beak of a titanic stork.
“Hi guys,” said Big Mikey, a small horde of shriveled dogs pawing around his feet. “Where are you going?”
“Hi Mikey!” Riot called, and Diggory gave him a little wave.
“Don’t come one step closer,” Cindy shrieked, and levelled a small silver pistol at the giant, “Or I use your eyes for target practice!”
Interlude 2 - A Few Goodbyes
I have made many goodbyes in my time. Gleeful, proud, irreverent as I left my post at the Council of Heavens, abandoned the gates for someone else to guard.
Mournful, pained as I said goodbye to my mentor, Dreaming All That Is, for although I found him difficult at first, I would miss his presence deeply by the time my learning was complete.
I have no words for Marolmar, for I never had the chance to bid him farewell from my life or this universe.
Bittersweet, I think, for leaving my friend, Amaryllis Ward. I miss Amy from time to time, if you can believe it, but it was the right time to depart.
And eventually, dreamer, when all this is done, if I am still here I will say goodbye to you, and you will have no more nightmares. What a blessed day that will be for you.
We go now to one who has known few reunions.
Story 3 - The Prophet Tree
Friday Rescher was used to quiet. Quiet she had sought out in the forgotten twists of Downing Hill’s labyrinth, or in the sunless room where the tortured spirit of her mother haunted a silver locket, or in a large upholstered chair across from Olivier—and later, across from Clara.
But quiet was not the same as peace. Downing Hill always thrummed with the energy of a thousand hungry books, pulling in space and time and light. Clara hungered for her, and ambition and worth. The forest itself called silently for blood.
But here, in the Blackwood Coven, in the hermitage beneath the boughs of the Prophet Tree, there was peace. A stillness that desired nothing from her and did not wait for an end.
And so she sat nestled in the roots of the great tree, watched the little river trickle by her feet. Edgar had taken up a position in a tree knot somewhere above her head; the fluffy black soul weaver was as big as a cat by now, and growing bigger with the spirit of each bird it caught. She contemplated a deer skull in her hands, antlers still jutting from its sloped forehead, and whistled.
There was a rustle in the branches above, a stirring of the many noisy ravens, and a single bird drifted down and came to stoop precariously in the antlers.
“Omen,” she whispered. “Have you seen anything interesting lately?”
“Sister Fortune has added more feathers to her dress,” the bird croaked in a low tone. “This alarms the Omen. Sister Ursula left the ward in the early morning. She returned before dawn with new herbs. And Sister Elin sews a new doll, one with dark hair and dress.”
“One that looks like me?” Friday murmured, and the Omen nodded emphatically. “Interesting. I’ll have to ask her what she does with those… or just take it.”
“Have you learned anything new from them?” the Omen croaked.
“Yes,” Friday said. The omen squinted a black eye at her.
“Our agreement is to share information,” it said. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, rumor hath the seer forsooth.”
“You may not want to know,” Friday frowned.
“The Omen very much wants to know,” the bird said, and hopped in place on the antlers.
“Curiosity killed the cat,” Friday said, and could not quite contain the smile creeping onto her face.
“Because cats are stupid creatures!” the Omen crowed triumphantly. “Demons much better with secrets!”
“Oh alright,” she said, and tilted the skull closer, bird perched on top. “Daughter Laurel, Grandmother Briar… they knew my mother. They haven’t explained how, yet, but they did. She has books here, books of magic and recipes. I’m going to find out what happened to her.”
The Omen’s bouncing energy dissipated.
“What,” she said. “Not good enough for you?”
“Tell me more of the prophecies,” the Omen croaked.
“You didn’t get enough doomsday litanies living in Downing Hill?” Friday said. A figure in a long green dress was emerging from the low huts of the coven, ducking through clotheslines in her direction.
“These ones seem more pertinent,” the Omen said.
“Fine. I’ll give you one,” Friday muttered. “They say it’ll come to pass soon. The heart of the greenmother will stir, the time of quickening complete, and the new age will begin resplendent. All save her faithful will be washed away by the spring rains, but her harvest is promised for the true. The age of eternal spring. Happy?”
The Omen said nothing; only winked as it took off flying into the air, surprised Grandmother Briar as she drew close. The woman had dark skin, and was wrapped in a simple dress of earthen green; there were more embroidered vines upon it each time Friday saw her. The bones of little mice and birds and thorny flower twigs were wrapped in the braids of her hair, a style not dissimilar to the one she had given Friday.
“Making new friends?” the old woman smiled.
“The old ones aren’t very good for conversation,” Friday said, and set down the deer skull in the roots of the bent tree. “Let me guess, you’d like a hand with the dinner preparations?”
“Lucky guess, but that’s not why I came to speak with you,” the woman said. There was a regal sparkle in her eye, and her folded hands betrayed no tremor. “I wanted to give you time to consider. Tonight at dark we are performing a ritual in honor of your mother. There is no pressure to attend, but if you do, we will tell you all we knew of her. If you are not ready to understand who she was, then I encourage you to wait for a different time.”
“I’m ready,” Friday said, and stood immediately, brushed the soil from her dress, and looked Grandmother Briar in the eye. “I want to know her as more than a grieving spirit.”
“Good,” said Grandmother Briar, and smiled. “I hope it will help. But for now, come help me with the carrots.”
She turned, and Friday cast a look up at the ravens in the trees. It was hard to know which one was Omen, or maybe they all were, staring down from the boughs of the home-nest.
Don’t worry, she thought. I’ll fill you in next time.
Outro - Departures
Departures. What can be said to alleviate the sorrow of leaving? It is always an ending to leave a place, and only the future can tell if you shall grace it again, a new chapter there begin.
Even so, goodbyes are not always to be feared. If the place you leave does not welcome you, if the people who dwell there do not call a name that is yours as you leave, it can be a burden left behind on the horizon. A departure can be sweet.
Not without pain, still, for even then it is hard to leave. Some goodbyes seem so simple; some last for silent years, and some are never quite complete.
As for mine, I like to remind you that I am, as always, your loyal host, and that my name is Nikignik, and that I will until you next dream be waiting for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Last Chance', 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!