Content Warning: This episode may include themes of death + injury, violence, blood, emotional manipulation, abuse, and drowning.
Intro - Floorboards
You hear it at night as you sleep: a throbbing heartbeat under the floorboards. Its contractions shake your room ever so slightly, every second a pulse. It is a comforting sound to you, for you know that it means the house is alive, and it watches over you like a father. One day the heartbeat is slower. You put up new wallpaper in the living room, and add window boxes of flowers. It does not help. You are filled with anger and fear. One day the heartbeat stops completely. You do not leave your silent room for weeks. One day you walk across the still floor, and out of the house. You leave the keys under the welcome mat. You walk north, and you hear a familiar sound in the trees. The earth resounds with new life, and every beat says ‘Hello from the Hallowoods’.
Right now I’m in the sky. It’s beautiful up here. Below me is a forest that has not yet been touched by darkness that consumes my Hallowoods. Nevertheless, this place is full of strange life, writhing and crawling. Most of it is very small. Quite large, however, is the woman that lopes through the trees, with a heart racing as fast as death. The theme of tonight’s episode is hearts.
Story 1 - The Hand That Feeds
Victory was at hand, and Yaretzi bounded through the trees, wild with hunger. Her heart pounded in her chest, blood rushed through her ears. Her nose was alive with the scent of smoke, burning hotter than any earthly fire. Her next meal was close, and she was ready to feast. Some days she felt more wolf than others, but she was powerful today, and her fur flew in the wind as she ran. Centuries of sleep made a girl hungry, and she had a craving for the blood of old enemies.
There were so few left in the world now. By the time she was done, there would be none at all. Then her work would be complete, and she would be exalted, wrapped in the light of the heavens and run freely through the stars. She howled; a warning sign and a proclamation.
She broke through the trees into the open space—it did not surprise her that her opponent had chosen a playing field free of terrain. Arrogance had always been their downfall. He stood at the edge of a lake, one of the hundreds that spread out across the landscape, reflecting the grey sky like dark mirrors. Yaretzi raced towards him without hesitation. The less they were permitted to speak, the faster they tended to die.
“Hello Yaretzi, my name is Polly. Would you like to talk?” the voice echoed in her mind—suave and deceptive.
She spread her claws and bared her teeth, closing in at tremendous speed. Water glinted on the lake, and Polly made no movement to flee. Perhaps he had accepted his end. Yaretzi reached out with claws and teeth to tear the monster apart, spill his blood onto the gravel bed and drink.
She was sent reeling as a huge form burst from the water; silver and shining red chrome. The titan swept her body aside with a claw, sending her crashing into the rocks. She barely registered the fall, but her body felt on fire everywhere that the claw had touched her; blistering her skin. She hissed. She had not seen such a metal in a long time, but she recognized it now. The giant had an armored body and a glass head with a human skull floating within, and green fires burned in its empty sockets. This wounded her as much as the blow, and she roared in fury.
“What have you done?”
Polly glanced at his brute. It began lumbering towards her with footsteps that shook the rocks.
“I’ve done nothing. He was just lying around; I thought I’d put him to good use.”
Yaretzi rose in anger and leaped towards him, a flash of claws quick and sharp enough to turn a human inside out. He caught her wrist in his massive glove, and held it. She felt her fur peeling back from his grip; the wolf in her spirit abandoning her human frame. She screamed, and then the massive claw closed around her throat, squeezing almost to the point of crushing her. She clawed at the vice that held her, but she could feel the claws and teeth retreating. This was not how her task was supposed to go. She was mostly human now; helpless, fragile. She struggled until she could not any longer, and she sobbed for air.
She was a failure, had always been a failure. She was seeing stars as she dangled, but knew that she would never run in the constellations now. The blood boiled in her eyes and in her throat; her lungs strained uselessly for breath. Polly stood beside his weapon and watched.
“I know what you’re supposed to do. Have been doing.” he said. “I respect your work greatly, in fact. My coworker Typhon warned me about you. He allowed you to snuff out his little fire, you know? His business was done. He was ready for retirement. But I? I’ve got a serious project, and I think you’d agree that it’s very important.”
The giant’s vice-like grip relaxed a centimeter, and she sucked in air, although she could not escape from the claw’s impossible force. Tears streaked her face, and she snarled at the monstrosity. Its skull looked blankly back at her.
“I’d like to make a deal with you. And you know how my kind are about deals, but I hope you’ll hear me out, because the alternative is not a pleasant one. I want your word that you’re not going to kill me. Not yet. You’ll wait until my errand is complete, like a good dog. You can come with us, if you want to be certain. And when it is, then you’re welcome to do what you do best. You can rip out my heart and anything else you require. But I need to get this done.”
Yaretzi bit back tears. She had no choice, not really. The words appeared in the air in front of her, wreathed in fire. A blank line indicated for her signature.
“What is the task?” she growled.
“That doesn’t matter.” Polly said, and tapped his umbrella. The vice grip closed in again, and she struggled to say the words.
“You have the word of Yaretzi, proud servant of Tolshotol, Who Guards a Thousand Suns, that I will not slay you until your task is complete.”
They appeared on a flaming application document as she spoke, boxes filling in with her script, and the contract was stamped in embers as the final line was written. Polly smiled a catlike grin, and tapped the umbrella again. The accursed beast dropped her, and she held her hands to her throat, refilling her empty lungs.
“Mort, this is Yaretzi.” Polly gestured to her, and turned to leave. “Yaretzi, meet Mort.”
Mort held out a giant glove towards her. “Will you be my friend?” He asked.
Yaretzi stared up at it in horror and disbelief, but willed herself to reach out. The metal did not damage her skin further; not when she was like this. She pulled herself to her fragile human feet. Polly and Mort turned to leave, striding away, and Yaretzi stumbled behind, cursing the collar that had been placed on her spirit. Victory felt far away; as distant as the stars.
Interlude 1 - The Museum of Broken Promises
Have you ever wanted to see hearts in jars? A baby with the head of a beetle? A man with perfect emotional awareness? You should visit the Museum of Broken Promises.
Admire the promises made and broken throughout history and the strange artifacts left in their wake. Other museums gloss over the heartache and suffering in their histories, but at the Museum of Broken Promises it is all on display. There is an owl with buttons for eyes and a living cloud.
If you wish to visit the museum, simply promise a loved one that you will never leave them. That night, stay up until three in the morning and the museum will scuttle by in the darkness.
It will not stop for you.
You must run to catch it.
You will clamber up the ladder in the dark and step through the magnificent doors. Look back on your home, and say goodbye. You will never return. You are part of the museum now. We go now to someone who has broken many promises.
Story 2 - Warm Hearts, Wet Jackets
The rain sliced through Percy’s skin like wire, and he glowed as white as the lightning that arced across the sky above them. The rain had come on suddenly, and although the droplets buzzed through the field of Percy’s energy, it did not bother him. He wondered if Diggory felt the same way. The lightning glinted in the spikes of their wet black jacket, and their hair clung to their stitched-up face. Rain or shine, Diggory kept walking, and the spectral wire around Percy’s wrist led to the piano key in Diggory’s pocket. It hadn’t been a bad journey, and Diggory was sweet despite a terrifying appearance. Percy could relate in his own way.
“What was it like, growing up with a father like the instrumentalist?” Diggory asked quietly, and Percy wished they hadn’t brought it up. His father’s presence in the wood was suffocating. Percy knew Diggory was doing their best to understand, to show support, so he tried to humor them.
“It was bad.” Percy said. “And the worst part is, when I was kid I thought he was the best dad ever. I was always a good little girl in Sunday School. And then I got older, and started to realize who I was, and who they were. Turns out he was a serial killer and my mom was a psychopath. I stopped wearing dresses and they thought I was possessed or something. So she gave me these.” Percy said, touching the holes around his lips where the thread had punctured.
“And he gave me this.” He tugged on the ghostly piano wire looped around his wrist, trailing through the air into Diggory’s pocket. “They hurt me. But more than that, they made me hate myself. I can’t forgive them for that.”
The sky rumbled in the distance, the displeasure of an angry god.
“What about you?” Percy asked. The words had come streaming out of him, and he felt he had shared too much.
“There’s a lot I don’t remember.” Diggory said quietly. “I don’t feel like I even had a childhood. Or maybe I had too many to count. I remember learning to play the piano. There was a woman in the corner that nobody else could see. She looked like you do, glowed like moonlight.”
Percy blushed, and looked angrily off into the trees.
“I was also a small girl, someplace warm and bright, with happy music. My parents gave me mango for dessert. Perhaps my real childhood was waking up on that stone table—the one you saw in the mansion. An old woman talked as she sewed me together, about her garden, about a man she had just met. I like those memories. I wish I had more of them.”
Diggory pushed through the trees, letting the water fall from the branches, and Percy passed through them effortlessly. Percy wondered how they always knew which way to walk, what it must be like to have that confidence of direction.
“I am scared, Percy.” Diggory whispered. “I am terrified of walking to places I do not know. I have no idea what we will find. But I suppose following my heart this far led me to you, and you are the best person in my life.”
Percy flinched, and defended himself with humor to mask the rising anxiety. “Between me and Big Mikey, that’s not saying much.”
“You’re thoughtful.” Diggory continued, and Percy looked at them curiously, hoping that this wasn’t going where he felt it was. “And kind. I like the shape of your face, and your hands.”
Diggory had stopped walking, and looked at Percy with those vulnerable white eyes, impossible to read.
“I grieve for the hurt you have been through,” Diggory said, “and when I hear you laugh, I feel like my heart is beating. I think you are unhappy with yourself, but I think everything you are is worth celebrating.”
Percy shook, and felt sick to his stomach. Not now, of all times, not now. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to look away from Diggory’s face, droplets trickling down their stitched skin, looking up at him with a reverence he knew he did not deserve.
“I do not fully remember what this means,” Diggory said, “but I love you, Percy. I love you.”
Marketing - Thoughts and Prayers
I am Lady Ethel Mallory, and tonight I bring you a tragic announcement from Botco. You may have heard of the recent events at Dreaming Box Aries. After nightmarish damage and awful influences on the Prime Dream caused by the anarchist group Stonemaids, a saboteur disabled the dreaming visors for the more than one millions dreamers within the box. He was apprehended by our brave security team, but the users at Dreaming Box Aries experienced terrible side effects as a result of improper disconnection from the Dreaming Box. This is why it is so important to report Stonemaid activity wherever you find it. Do it for the good of your friends. For the good of your dreams. Our hearts, thoughts, and prayers are with the injured at Dreaming Box Aries, who have been quarantined for safety until further...
Story 2, Continued - Warm Hearts, Wet Jackets
Dreamers, these interruptions are becoming routine, and I know that the source of that voice - this Lady Ethel—is near. She does not know me yet, I think, but I know her, and because of that I fear her. I fear what she is capable of. We return now to Percy Reed.
Percy did not know what to say. In the light of everything Percy was dealing with—it was unfair. It was so unfair. But yet, looking at the wide-eyed person baring their soul in front of him, lost in time and memory and soaked in rain, Percy could not be angry.
The words did stir something in him, a heat that he had not experienced in years and a confusing knot of emotion in his chest. Diggory waited for response, and looked away into the trees.
“I am sorry. I should not have said that.”
Diggory began to walk away, and Percy was filled with a desperation stronger than his fear, darting after him without thinking.
“No.” Percy said, stopping inches short of Diggory’s face as they turned to face him. Percy ignored the rain bleeding through his body. “It’s alright.”
“It’s the wrong time.” Diggory said.
Percy wanted to say yes, it was an awful time. He would never touch another person again, would never be free of the torture he had endured, had been alone for years and didn’t know how to think or feel around another person. And deep down, he wondered, how could you love a dead boy, torn apart and terrified? If you knew me, you would never say that.
Percy had never been good at healthy responses, and he pressed forward into Diggory’s space, lips meeting. They stung like static electricity, shocking in Percy’s energy.
Diggory pulled back, eyes wide.
“Sorry.” Percy said. “I shouldn’t have.”
“It’s alright.” Diggory whispered.
“I’m glad I met you, too.” Percy said. That much, at least, was true. In the distance, above the treelines, a light was flashing. Thunder rumbled above them both—the storm had almost descended into the trees, and lightning broke against the sky, flickering in the treetops. The light in the distance disappeared.
“We’re here.” Diggory said, pulling away from the ghost. “Whatever it means, we’re here.”
Interlude 2 - The Heart of a Planet
The core of the earth burns with innocent fire—a young love, a simple desire. It has not seen the eons pass, the empires rise and fall, like the cold rocks of space. Its arterial veins stretch beneath its skin, blazing with warmth, in trenches beneath the ocean and in mountains of fury and rapture. One day it will beat slow and old; the embers of a life well lived. Humankind will not be there to see it, and neither will the ones that come after, or after, or after. None of them will know the value of what they have been given. The heart of a planet is a precious thing. We go now to a heart much smaller, but just as full of hope.
Story 3 - Go North
Clara could not believe her luck, and laughed as the raindrops landed on her glasses. She cupped her hands, letting the water pool in her palms, drinking eagerly. Her frizzy hair was matted, her patience was gone, and she had not slept in what felt like days. Leaving those awful frogs behind had been a challenge, and since then things had been bad.
The food was gone—the RV’s stock of packaged goods, well past their expiration dates, had finally run out, along with the last of the gasoline. Her attempts to hunt and forage had not been overly successful—the ghostly dog that accompanied her tried to bring her towards good berries and mushrooms, but a bad one had gotten in the mix, and she had spent a week feeling like she was going to die. She was on foot now, and Dogsmell skirted around her in the storm, glowing like the sky.
She was laughing now, victoriously. She stood at the edge of a dark stream, and on a rocky island in the water, an unbelievable find glinted in the lightning. What looked to be a bicycle, a flashlight, a tackle box, and most important a gas can were overgrown with moss. Clara could only guess if there was any fuel left inside, but this treasure trove filled her with hope. If only a steaming hot meal was sitting there too. Dogsmell whimpered from the shore, a glimmer of light in the pouring rain. Clara left her bags and hunting bow and plunged into the water—deeper than expected, and she had to fight a stiff current to cross the distance.
She heard the dog bark in its thunderous voice, and as she turned to look back at the dog, something seized her ankle, and she was under the water. She kicked violently, screaming for air beneath the surface. In the darkness she could see nothing, could only feel the pressure around her limbs. As she inhaled river water, she could see through the silt as dozens of glowing green eyes blinked open.
Then she was rising with terrific force, without any power of her own—as if the water itself was pushing her upwards. She exploded out of the river, torn away from the grasping mud, and fell gently against the shore. She heaved up water before she noticed a person standing above her.
She was short, possibly Korean, with hair that matched her piercing blue eyes. In the stream, Clara watched as a mass of eyes and black tentacles drifted away with the treasure rock, shifting like the shell of some huge mollusk.
“Hello.” The girl said. She wore a hooded cloak embroidered with clouds and rain, fitting for the weather.
“Thank you.” Clara coughed. Dogsmell bounded over to her, pressing an intangible face to hers, sympathetic shadows for eyes.
“That belongs to you?” The stranger asked in surprise, pulling her coat back from the dog.
“It follows me, yeah.” Clara nodded.
“Your heart is pumping covenant blood. I can tell.” The stranger looked at her with interest, eyes flashing blue in the shadow, and produced a metal card, handing it to Clara. She fumbled it in her hands, putting on her glasses to read the delicate letters.
“Downing Hill Public Library.”
“Go there.” The stranger said. “They’ll take care of one like you.”
“Thanks.” Clara grunted, looking up. “Where is this place?”
The stranger was gone, vanished into the night. Clara was freezing now, but she could not rest. She gathered up her bags, and began to walk. She flipped the card over in her hands, and each time she did, the text in the cast letters beneath the title seemed to change.
Hello Clara, they read. Follow the River. Go North. Go North. Go North.
Outro - Hearts
Hearts. A pound of convulsing meat squirming inside every human being. You equate them with your emotions, say that they fight against your good brain ideas, as though they are separate things within you. You don’t have a heart, not in the way you think of it. Your blood muscle has nothing to do with your bad decisions. Nevertheless, I understand. I have made choices a human would say were from the heart. Like humans, I have come to regret all of them. I am your loyal host, Nikignik, keeping the pulse on these dark woods, and waiting for your heart to tell you to return to the Hallowoods.