Content warnings for this episode include: Ableism, Animal death (Tulip and Heidi as usual, Beast the Bear), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Gun Mention, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Rapture Panic
Intro - One Day At The End Of Time
One day, at the end of time, you will wake and it will all be over. When all matter has crawled onto its inevitable destruction, when all heat, all light, all cold, all love, all death is only a trillion trillion trillion year old memory, you will open your eyes for the first time.
You must not wake before then, and so yours is a dark and turbulent sleep. The heavenly courts play soothing lullabies to keep you dreaming. And you do dream. You are the first dreamer, and you dream of the light you can never reach. You dream of a universe filled with glorious color, you dream of worlds of unimaginable life, you dream of suns eclipsing and nebulas burning and a cosmos that is painted with beauty. Dream is your power. Dream is your domain. You have shared it only once, with a small runaway god with too many eyes, one whose voice now echoes across the stars, one who says Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I sit in a small stone chapel. Its windows are shattered; its doors rotted away, and green mire laps at its stones. Inside, a bed of vines has grown across the stage, and creeping ivies curl around the heads and crowns of saints. A broken man lies amidst the greenery, and death upon a pale horse regards him. The theme of tonight’s episode is Watchers.
Story 1 - Tribulation Years
“Follow me,” said a voice, and Rick was not sure if it was God or the Devil. He opened his eyes, and rolled over to the edge of his bed, and pulled his blankets closer. He could hear rain pouring down on the rooftop, and it rippled down his bedroom window, painted the world outside pitch black.
“Follow me,” said the voice again, if a voice it could be called. It made no sound, but he felt it deeply within his heart. Where had that voice been for all the Sunday morning services? When others collapsed and writhed on the floor and spoke in tongues, was this what they heard?
Lightning sparked across the sky, and he could see people outside in the street, shuffling slowly through the rain, staring up to heaven. It was the rapture, he was certain. God calling his believers home before the tribulation. He sat up, almost let his toes touch the carpet before a thought struck him. Demons sometimes pretended to be angels; the Devil with thunderous voice leads believers astray. Whose voice was calling from the storm?
Oh no, he thought. Maybe in this moment I’ve doubted the Lord, and I’ve missed my chance. What if my parents, my brother are already taken? What if I’m alone in the house now? What if I’ll always be alone?
“Mom!” he shrieked, and was relieved to hear thumping footsteps grow loud in the hallway, and the door swung open. “Mom can you hear him? Can you hear him calling?”
His mother stood in the door, but her face was grey and cold, her eyes fixed on the far horizon, the skin of her cheek torn by jagged fingernails, tongue swollen like roadkill. She was always dead in his memory; somehow he’d seen her that one last time and forgotten what she ever looked like before.
“I don’t hear anything,” she said, and the lightning flashed on her rotting teeth.
“It’s the rapture,” he whispered. “God is singing to me.”
“Go back to sleep,” she whispered, and seized his blanket with her mangled fingers, drew it back up to his chin and tucked him in. “It’s just the rain.”
When Rick opened his eyes, he could not see much. One burned white as though it had a wooden splinter in it, and the other was long damaged by Big Mikey’s feral claw, could only see blurred shapes of light and darkness. It came flooding back to him. Typhon. Apollyon. Lazarus. The pool of graves, hands reaching up to tear him apart…
“Hello?” he called to the shadow. “Anyone there?”
He heard two thuds, a hiss. The hooves of a horse, a whisper of its heavy lungs shifting. He appeared to be inside; shafts of dim light shone above him. He could hear the patter of rain on the roof high above, dripping through into the room beyond him. He felt moisture on his cheek, turned to find a thin drizzle of water poured from the ceiling to fall beside him. He tried to roll over and reach it, remembered that his hand was missing, a growth that twitched as he put pressure on it. He drank, let the cool water run across his face, wash away the burning warmth inside his head for a few precious moments.
When he had drunk of the rain, he laid back against what felt to be a bed of weeds or tree roots, and looked out to the darkness, and whatever might live in it.
“This is hell,” he said. “Eternal torment, right? Where’s the devil-man, I want to talk to him. He’ll know me. He knows my name.”
What dwelt in the shadow did not respond.
“What do you want from me?” he said. “I can hear you there. If you’re going to hurt me then do it. Get it started. Where am I gonna go?”
The darkness took shape, stepped forward. A glint of white; the eyes of death’s pale horse. That too, he remembered. The skull of the undead Lazarus tumbling into the water. The stones beneath him shook as the heavy creature laid close to him. A pool of shadow was framed in the window-light; shoulders with no head upon them.
Two hands reached out to seize his; the one that was still made of flesh and bone, and he shrieked, squirmed away, slid off of his makeshift perch and down a tangle of roots, he splashed into a shallow pool of water in the broken tiles of the floor. He stretched his missing fingers, but could not muster any use from them, not like the sword, the living weapon they had been before. The shadow moved to block his path, a sweep of its lumbering form, and he reached out to touch it.
Rough lichen, wet moss. Short fur, rotting away beneath his touch. A smooth wet sliver of bone, a long tangle of weed or mane. The shadow was a horse, and it did not rise to trample him, let him cling against its surface.
He heard a slow rustling, two hands moving again to take his hand. He breathed heavy, but let the dead thing touch him. It applied pressure to his pinky and thumb, bent them in to his palm, touched his remaining fingers to his chin.
“What the hell are you doing?” Rick said, and flung the dead thing’s grasp away, stumbled back, fell again on his nest of roots with a thud. He could not find the energy to stand, and being upright made him lightheaded.
A hand seized his hair, dragged his head sharply into the trickle of water from the ceiling, let him go. He coughed, spat.
The shadow stood close, expectant, unseeing.
He stared back, equally blind, and raised his hand, bent the thumb and pink inwards, and flipped the shadow off with the other three.
“What is this supposed to mean?” he said.
The shadow made no reply; simply rose with a rush of air, and with one heavy step after another disappeared into the room beyond. He sighed, and laid back against the bed of vines. I should have listened when the storm called, he thought. It was the rapture, and I missed it. And these years of tribulation never end.
Interlude 1 - A Little Of Me
The Watching Trees are few in the Hallowoods, and can rarely be found if you are looking for them. You will know you have discovered one when you come across a trunk filled with red knots that blink like eyes, pale bark and black leaves. They mean you no ill intention. If anything, they are curious to see where your path will lead. Their roots spread deep throughout the woods, pull in secrets from every silent pine.
But they learn the most from a corpse, and if your body is laid upon their roots, they will pull it in, burrow into your flesh and pry thoughts from your fading memories. No one wanders unseen in these woods. Be wary if you speak to one. They will not warn you if your journey is bound to end in failure. They are like me in that regard.
They are like me in many regards, and I wonder if, although their creator has left his engine blindly to fashion life of its own accord, if some fragment of me continues on in his thoughts. In the trees that watch.
We go now to another fragment of him.
Story 2 - Twice Unlucky
You could tell a lot about a person by the hugs they gave, Jonah thought. Hector’s first had been a shy, shallow thing with a pat on the shoulder attached. But now the man clung to him, buried his face in Jonah’s beard. Heidi sat beside them, watching them both.
“Please just let me handle this,” Hector said, muffled.
“Yours is the backup plan,” Jonah said. “If we’re lucky, we won’t need it.”
“‘Backup plan’ might not be enough to keep you safe.”
“I don’t need to be kept safe, Hec,” Jonah said, and kissed Hector’s forehead. “I can’t die, remember? Sooner or later I will always find my way back to you.”
“You say that like you’ve ever known what you’re doing,” Hector said, and winced as he pulled away. “Last time this thing killed you, and you were gone for weeks. I thought I would never see you again.”
“Last time, I had a lot to learn,” Jonah said, and fixed his wide-brimmed hat. “Wish me luck?”
“Good luck, Jones,” Hector said, and released him. “You’ve got this.”
Jonah nodded, although he knew it was a lie. Cindy came stomping into the clearing, eyes fixed on the device in her hands; its screen glowed as green as the stars overhead.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” she stated, looking up to them both. “My navigator says we’re headed true North, but we’ve changed directions four times.”
“I think we mentioned it would do that,” Hector said.
“But that means it’s more than just a magnetic anomaly,” Cindy said.
“I never said it was,” Jonah said.
“And you,” Cindy said, folded the tablet beneath her arm. “You’re going to confront this… creature? Are you sure you want to be the bait? We have several in our group who are less… fragile.”
“I have to try this,” Jonah said. “If it works, it could be a quick ticket through this place. And if it doesn’t, well…”
Here he glanced to Hector, gave him a nod.
“Then you’ll be in good hands.”
He passed through the makeshift camp—there was no daylight, not properly. Stars shone green in an abyssal sky, and the trees had taken on an oddly luminescent quality. Black at first glance, but colors he could not describe lurked within the shadow, just barely out of human vision. The submersible robot, the sewn-together cadaver, the ghost in the armor, the amateur groundskeeper, the kid from Downing Hill.
“Good luck everyone,” Jonah said, and waved.
“It feels weird that you’re just going to walk off and talk to god,” Riot said. “Do you need to bring anything?”
“I’ll be just fine,” Jonah said, and smiled.
“Come back quickly if it turns out to be unpleasant,” Diggory said.
Jonah nodded, and did not need to consult a compass to know that as he left the clearing, stepped between the black pines and into the shifting world beyond, he was headed due north.
He knew exactly what he was looking for, and the forest rippled as if ushered by the wind, a labyrinth of cosmic trees rearranged in sweeping waves. He knew where to go. He had been there before. He looked down to find Heidi padding beside him, mouldering paws in the underbrush, and he did not shoo her away. It was her right to be here as much as it was his, he thought. She had met him before once too.
He stepped into a wide clearing, and stopped. The sky shone with bands of phosphorescent green, and the undergrowth crawled and slithered, and two great pine trees stood like towers in the center. A hum filled the air, like distant whale song, and he closed his eyes for a moment, and listened. When he opened them again, his shadow flickered across the ground, cast by the emerald light of a burning crown hovering over his head.
“Come forth,” he said, and his voice echoed like thunder across the clearing, and he hoped, into the realm between the pines. “And let me know you better.”
The hands were the first to arrive. One pale, skeletal set after another, grasping the underbrush and the pine boughs, creeping forward one array of arms at a time. A torso emaciated as if mummified, long arms wrapped close to its withered stomach. A skull without a face, and slits along either side of its neck, great antlers full of vines. Phosphorescent mushrooms and black moss trailed from its shoulders like a cape, and although he had not seen it before, a crown in burning green flickered over its brow. The Faceless King stood tall between the pines for a moment, regal upon its regiment of crawling arms. The slits in its neck widened, and Jonah prepared for a deathly scream, was thankful for once that his hearing was not what it once was.
But the Faceless King did not shriek, or destroy his eardrums, or rush forward to tear him asunder. Instead, its voice formed in Jonah’s mind, branded like a hot poker.
“Hello, Jonah Duckworth. I’ve been looking forward to this.”
Marketing - Drone
*sounds of Ethel trying to wrangle the dreamcaster and a heavy object at the same time*
I’ve almost got… there. That’s it.
This is my lucky day.
Yesterday was not. My hat blew away. And it’s bright out today and the sun burns so I’ve taken off my coat and I’m using it for shade as I walk. Thank goodness I still have my glasses.
I also lost Anderson. My pet. My beautiful pet. He was my favorite. Sorry Oswald. Anderson was the one that Brooklyn caught for me. One of the few useful things she did. Brooklyn, if you’re out here napping somewhere, I hope you’re dead. You ruined my life. You and that idiotic security guard.
But it’s alright, because I’ve found a solution. Truth be told, I was trying to stay optimistic about the walk, but who would ever really enjoy that much exercise? That’s a months long journey ahead of me, when I could simply, do this…
I suppose you can’t see that.
I found one of those drones with the little billboards on them. The ones where you punch in your location and they come find you. Alright, little drone, off you go.
I may have damaged it a little in catching it. It didn’t seem to recognize me as a human being. But that’s artificial intelligence for you. Not very intelligent at all.
So now I sit, and I wait. And when they send a Cluster to collect me, I can… pretend, yes. That I’m not Lady Ethel. I can be someone else, and I can go back, and… hm.
Disguising myself might prove difficult, come to think of it. But if I can just get close to a box again, I’m sure I could… make a difference.
Please. Please, little camera with wings. Please take me back. Please anyone take me back.
Story 2, Continued - Twice Unlucky
I’ve thought about going back to my old occupation, from time to time. But was I ever that self-pitying or indecisive? Hm. I hope not. And if I was, I certainly wasn’t sharing it with the entire dreaming world.
We return now to Jonah Duckworth.
“What’s wrong?” said the Faceless King, an underbelly of a thousand hands twitching. Its voice was oddly soft and pleasant, like a bank teller. “You seem surprised.”
“It’s just the speech thing,” Jonah said, and blinked, tried not to shake as he regarded the beast. “You seemed… more violent, last time.”
“You have grown since last time,” said the Faceless King. “You are welcome.”
“Welcome for what exactly?”
“When last we met, you had no idea what power you carried. You needed to learn. So I sent you to the Workshop. To learn.”
“The workshop? Is what you call that place?” Jonah said, and crossed his arms. The pale king spoke no lies. “It took me quite a while to find my way out.”
“It was a workshop. A staging ground. Our master spent aeons there crafting what would eventually be our legacy.”
“The heart,” Jonah said. “That was where it was built. What do you mean our master? The thing carved on the walls there?”
“The Garden of the End,” the Faceless King said, and stepped forward on thirty palms. Heidi lowered, hackles raised; growled with skeletal teeth.
“Oh hello,” the Faceless King said, and tilted its head to look at her. “You know, I spared the life of your friend last time because she asked. She understands, you know. The progression of things. I am concerned that you do not.”
“I came here to ask you a few things,” Jonah said. “Yes, I have learned more. I have this crown now. And… I’ve used my power. Not a lot. Or it was a lot at the time, just not often. I’ve spoken with the Rat King. I feel like I’m beginning to understand how all of this works. I wanted to ask you to let us through.”
The Faceless King did not smile; it had no teeth—on its face, at least.
“Jonah, I am worried that you are not taking your responsibility seriously. Or worse, that you seek to destroy the source of that responsibility.”
Jonah drew closer, tried to show no fear in his posture. Heidi prowled forward beside him.
“That machine,” Jonah said. “The one that’s buried in the arctic. Or at least it was, a long time ago, I have a feeling the distance between here and there has changed quite a bit. It’s tearing everything apart. All my friends. Human kind. It’s ruined the world. The fish off the coast of Boston, you know, they have three heads and too many eyes and things. It’s harder to keep on going every year. And if we are going to stop it ending, we need to stop that machine. I have a crown the same as you. I wanted to talk about this with you before we do this.”
“You do have a crown, Jonah Duckworth, but it fits you poorly,” said the Faceless King. “The heart is an end, yes. It is the end of pain. It is the end of illness. It is the end of suffering. I was human, once. I thought the same as you. But I accepted the call of the Garden. I accepted my role as Herald. And I came to realize, it is not only an end. It is a beginning. The beginning of an age new and beautiful and untold, Jonah. One we can only begin to imagine. That crown symbolizes a promise to protect this changing of the age. To keep the heart safe until this passing is complete. And if you do not understand that, then perhaps you need more time in the Workshop to contemplate.”
“I don’t want this to end,” Jonah said, and his crown burned bright, and he stood his ground as the Faceless King crept towards him. “I’ve been given this crown for a reason, and I think it is to put a stop to this like no one else can.”
“You were not given your crown,” the Faceless King said, looming over him. Its trailing body of arms and jagged vertebrae slid out of the gateway in the trees. “You fell into a cabinet and collided with affairs you know nothing about. I do not know what your domain is. Mine is to protect the heart. And if you do not flee this forest now, I will begin by peeling your muscles from your bones, and then I will tear your friends to pieces.”
Jonah felt a surge of anger, and as he did, felt his feet leave the ground, hovered in the air, green light flashing in his eyes.
“No,” he said. “You will not. I am a Herald of the Garden of the End. I am the same as you. And I will not rest until this is over.”
The Faceless King unfolded one frail arm, and lifted it to the side. The gateway between the trees hummed and buzzed as if it was formed of static.
“Are you listening to me?” Jonah shouted.
A second shape emerged from the rift between the pines; a long sloped head, jagged empty nostrils, deathly green eyes in decrepit sockets, thickets of rotting white fur over jet black skin. A polar bear the size of a shipping container, with a maw crowded with jagged yellow fangs.
“Beast,” the Faceless King said politely. “Hunt.”
The great mound of fur and bone lurched into motion, barreled toward Jonah. Jonah raised his hands, reached out to the forest around him. But the trees did not honor his call; they bowed in reverence as the Faceless King stepped forward. The bear ignored Jonah entirely, instead it ran for Heidi, and as she bolted, it tumbled after her through the underbrush into the forest beyond.
“Please don’t do this,” Jonah said, light blazing in his eyes, the crown above him flickering as he watched the bear run through the forest, closing in on a trap ill-laid for the Faceless King, ravenous for his friends. “Please. We’ll go away, we won’t bother you again. Just let them be alright.”
“Jonah Duckworth, you are a fool,” the Faceless King said. “All heralds see through lies like that.”
When he turned back to face the Faceless King, its pale skull was only inches from his, and he did not have time to scream before it, for the second time in his unlucky life, twisted apart his bones.
Interlude 2 - Inside Or Out
The power of dream is one that was shared with me by my mentor. I sometimes think it was quite gracious of him to educate me on that front, but then again, I suppose he has little else to do the rest of the time. But the power of sight, all sight, everywhere, is one I was born with. It took me time to collect myself, realize that I was aware, coalesce into being in the Orchard of Starlight in the center of the universe. I suppose I dreamed for a while before that, for it was like a dream. Passing visions of life born and decaying on distant worlds, a universe spinning everywhere at once.
How to make sense of it? How to ever be able to focus on who you are when you are so many places and nothing at all? I was not without guidance, back then. Many of us have a little whispered help from the Outsiders, just as vast and incomprehensible to us as we are to you. Just as your world will one day end and your time will be done, so will the universe that contains all Indescribable life. But just as I will outlive your sun, the Outsiders will outlive us.
But Nikignik, you say. How sad it is, then, to be born inside this universe instead of outside of it. But I estimate, that in some way, the Outsiders probably feel similarly about whatever is outside of them. The mites living in your skin feel similarly about you.
We go now to two who are looking desperately for answers.
Story 3 - First Place To Look
“What the hell did you think you were doing?” Virgil said, and rubbed at his temples. “You could have fallen out the back of the truck…”
“It was colder than I was planning on,” Zelda admitted, and rubbed her hands together in the meager heat of the truck’s air vents. She sat in the passenger seat with her shotgun between her knees.
“I’ve got to turn around and take you back,” Virgil said. “Is that what you wanted? To slow this investigation down? We got kids missing Missus Duckworth, this ain’t no time for fooling around…”
“I’m not fooling around,” Zelda said, and hugged her shotgun tighter. “Don’t you dare write me off, young man. Those bitties at the Scoutpost make a habit of that already.”
“You ain’t that much older than me,” Virgil said. “Point is, I’m trained to do this kinda thing. I’ll bring those kids back. But I can’t have you…”
“Can’t have me what?”
“You may not want to see whatever state they’re in,” Virgil said, and folded his hands on the wheel. “I wouldn’t put that on you.”
“Virgil my grandson has no skin and has been dead for years,” Zelda said, and rolled her eyes. “I have a tough stomach, whether we find them dead or alive.”
“There’s no ‘we’,” Virgil said. “There's me, who’s doing this, and there's you, who’s going home to the Scoutpost.”
“I know where they’ve gone,” Zelda said.
“I know you’ve got your theories,” Virgil began.
“Virgil. I know where they’ve gone,” Zelda said. He seemed to pause, chewed on the inside of his lip. “If you bring me along, I can show you. And if they’re not there, then at least you’ve checked the one most likely place. And if they are there, then you’ll be grateful for the help. You have a boy, he’s been in danger too. Tell me you wouldn’t do anything to bring him back home safe.”
“This place you’re thinking,” Virgil said.
“Downing Hill Public Library,” Zelda said. “Where that awful young person with the blue hair is from. My husband worked there for years. I never had the privilege of a library card, but I know where it was, last I looked. I know it sounds fantastical, but it’s very real, I promise.”
“I know,” Virgil sighed. “I had a buddy, Walt. He checked out books from there a time or two. I was always nervous about it, seems… wrong. Out here. How certain are you that’s where Al and Russell have gone?”
“I’d stake my life on it,” Zelda said.
Virgil sighed, and nodded, and turned the keys; the car chuckled into life. “Alright, Missus Duckworth. Where are we going?”
“Oh no,” Zelda said, and kicked open the door, hopped out onto the roadside. “I’m doing the driving.”
Outro - Watchers
Watchers. Do you ever feel like something is watching? I’m sorry. I try not to make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t worry. The intricate rituals of your life are a secret between you and me, and I could care less. There are, after all, almost a billion of you, and an entire universe I am also beholding but paying less attention to right now.
And if you ever feel completely alone, and abandoned, and quiet, by the same token, know that you are not. I am in the corner. I am in the shadows beneath the door, under the bed, behind the curtain. I watch because I think your life is interesting. I am curious where your story goes. And I watch because it is my nature to be spread thin across this universe, and I cannot help it.
But truth be told, if I could trade all my sight for the power to digest souls or to channel suns or bend all storms to my will, I would not. I see so much of this starlit cosmos and I am in love with it all. But most especially, with this place, with these few faces we follow, and I wait ceaselessly for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Twitch' 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!