Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Beast as usual, Bert not as usual), Suicidal Thoughts, Violence, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror
Intro - The One Wondering
It is only awkward for you on these long voyages at sea because you are the one wondering. Wondering if your companions with the beards over square jaws and the practiced shoulders would ever dream of loving their own kind, if the man who took your hand to welcome you aboard or the one whose shoulder brushes yours as you haul on the net thinks of you in the late hours of the night.
How long have you been comfortable with those thoughts? They are more present with every voyage. You stare out on the water to avoid staring at them, and as you do, behold a shadow. A dark shape ripples beneath the surface of the water, trails behind the boat.
You stare over the rail at it, a hundred times larger than the fish you have been netting, and it stares back, an abyssal thing with a thousand green lights like distant stars pulsing in its surface, lights that beckon you down into the water, lights that bid you Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now I am inside of an eye inside of an animal inside the arms of a girl inside of a labyrinth inside of a dimension inside of a book inside of a room inside of a library inside of a forest. The eye belongs to a shapeless evil, currently in the guise of a resident of the deep. The girl carries it forward into darkness that she cannot imagine. The theme of tonight’s episode is Fishes.
Story 1 - Into The Compact
The air was stifling, and only grew worse as she descended. What had been a cool lack of atmosphere in the upper echelons was now a creeping heat and the smell of thick smoke acrid with pollution. If the fire of souls burned, it did not burn clean. What was intolerable for her she would expect to be worse for her acquaintance, but then again, if he was anything like the Omen, he could not mind that badly.
“You had better be right about the time thing,” Clara grunted. “I’ve never stayed this long before. I’d better not be all dusty and wrinkly when I leave this awful book.”
It was not the first time she’d echoed the sentiment. She had spent a year here, a year there. It had taken time just to learn how to navigate, which rooms were red herrings back to the start and which were deadly traps and which inconspicuous apertures led into the expanse beneath. It had moved faster when she’d come across her companion lounging in a dried-out fountain. And she hoped now that this last plunge, three years of constant descent, would be her last voyage into the Compact.
“Would I lie to you?” said Fishbone. The fish was over two feet long, and had fins and green scales that reminded her more of a medieval illustration of a fish than any actual animal. Its gills flexed open and shut, and its voice croaked from a spined mouth. A lidless yellow eye watched her at all times.
“Yes,” she said. “You lie to me all the time. Like when you sent me into the room with the drills in the floor tiles.”
“A delightful prank,” said Fishbone.
“Or let me wander around the doldrums for a full month,” Clara grunted, and slid down a rock slope, the fish under her arm.
“I was curious to see how dedicated you were,” said the fish.
“The point is you’re a bad friend,” Clara said, and bounced to her feet, continued into the darkness of a passage ahead of her.
“I am not your friend at all,” said Fishbone. “I don’t owe you anything. Why do you carry me around?”
“I’m not sure,” Clara said. “There’s not many people to talk to here. I like having someone around, even if they’re not good for me. Helps keep me sane.”
“If you are lonely outside of here, you could summon me to your mortal realm. I am otherwise unemployed,” said the demonic bass.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Clara muttered, and stopped at an intersection. Torches in metal cages burned in the walls, and lit up the otherwise lightless square stone tunnel as it crossed over with another. Each foot of the walls and floors and ceiling was covered in carved glyphs, escape clauses and notwithstandings and fixed terms buried a thousand feet below the surface of the labyrinth. “Let’s hope I can get back to my ‘mortal realm’.”
“If you wish to leave the Compact,” said Fishbone, and blinked a slimy yellow eye, “I know many secret routes. You need not journey any deeper.”
“We must really be close then,” Clara sighed, and turned left. “If you’re offering me a way out.”
“There simply aren’t many happy endings to be found here,” said the fish. It was sticky to the touch, as if it had sat on the stones for a week before she found it. In truth, it might have been sitting far longer. “You are not the first to attempt this journey. Some end up wandering forever. And the ones that find what they were looking for rarely seem to get what they really wanted.”
“Did those other people have blood like mine?” Clara said; she walked forward with a hand outstretched; the red light of the lanterns had almost faded into pitch darkness. “Did they see ghosts and talk to demons?”
“They were never particularly talkative to me,” the fish admitted.
“That’s the difference,” Clara said, and felt a stone wall. A dead end. “They were trying to steal something from God. I’m just taking what belongs to me.”
“What do you really need with the power of the Industry anyways?” croaked the voice under her arm. “He doesn’t make fair bargains, you know. Whatever this costs you, it won’t be worth it.”
“It doesn’t have to be fair. It just has to work,” Clara said, and felt along the stone. A saw flashed in the darkness, ripped open her palm as she stumbled back, stuffed the bleeding hand against her jacket, and tried not to scream. It would not be fatal, she knew; she would walk around a bend sometime and the wound would be gone as if it was never there. It was, like everything about this labyrinth out of space, about the journey. But she was close now, she suspected. “I’m here for my parents. They’ve been infected with something. So has my whole world. This book has the answer. I just wish it was made of paper like usual, and not an endless torture maze.”
“That’s it?” said the fish. The saws had subsided, and a rumble ahead of her told her that the dead end was shifting to reveal a hall beyond.
“What do you mean?”
“Well I don’t have parents, but I can’t imagine I’d spend all my time fixating on ‘em,” said the fish. “Some life you’ve put together for yourself.”
She dropped him, and he hit the ground with a wet slap.
“Sorry,” she said, as a formality, and picked him up again.
“No you’re not,” said the fish. “That’s alright. Always a victim of malice, I am.”
“I need something to hold on to,” she said, and stopped, leaned her arm against the wall. Untold days beneath the earth, breathing in fumes and being cut to pieces, held her down. “My other friends keep disappearing and moving on without me. And I don’t have anyone else, nothing that matters. Being at Downing Hill is a game. It’s one I’m winning, enough to get this book, to get my parents back. Because maybe then we can go back to living in our big house like nothing happened. And if I can’t, I might as well be dead. I already live in that world half the time anyways.”
“You could stay here in the Compact with ol’ Fishbone,” said the fish. “It’s not so bad.”
She disregarded that and pushed through the hallway ahead. It was a long one, and dark, and she kept a hand outstretched so as not to run into any more walls, tested the ground ahead of her with her shoe so that no pit trap or oubliette could catch her.
But then there was light ahead, red flashing on the stone. The air was a black smog by now, and the light that poured through it was the fire of hell itself. She stepped into a large chamber, a great stone vault lined with stairs like an amphitheater. Tunnels and doors, passages and chutes all led into a room with no exits. Grand stairs swept down from where she stood, and at the bottom was a large stone table, stamped with several glyphs in the corner and a long line. Although she could not identify the language they were written in, she knew deeply what it said.
“Signature,” she said.
“Congratulations,” said Fishbone. “You’ve made it to the end of the Compact. I’d throw you a little party but I haven’t any hands.”
“I’m going to put you down now,” Clara said, and laid him on one of the stone steps. He flopped and writhed on the stone until he had partly propped himself up, and a yellow eye watched her as she descended the stairs.
“Will it be worth it?” the fish said, and she paused halfway down the stairwell. “When they tell you that you did a good job and they’re proud of you? Will it be worth everything you’ve sacrificed?”
“It has to be,” Clara said, and turned away from the demon, and clutched her bleeding palm as she reached the dais. As she stepped upon it, the dark stone table lit up with curling flame.
“What if it isn’t?” cried the fish from the steps; its eye danced like an ember in the light. “What if it’s all been the greatest waste of your life?”
“Fishbone?” Clara said, not taking her eyes from the flame. “Goodbye.”
She reached her hand into the flame, and pressed her bleeding palm against the stone, dragged it across the signature line. Her skin blistered in the heat, burning words crawling up her arm. Voss nen xorn syrensyr, om nen xorn sysrensyr. And then the fire consumed her, leapt into her face and her hair, and she joined the thick haze of smoke above as Fishbone watched and laughed.
She shook herself awake, and folded the leather volume in her lap closed, groaned to herself as she bent over double in her bed. She’d have to check in the mirror later whether she carried the years on the outside as she did inside. Her palm was not bleeding. The book with its wet red runes was just a book. And she breathed out, and sat up, and placed the tome on her nightstand. It had taken her longer than expected to get to the end of it, but she would not need it anymore, and she was already late for class.
Interlude 1 - From The Sky
Your whole life you spend in the comfortable avenues of what you know. Beneath you is a hard ground surface. The vegetation and brush that grows in your world brings you shade and comfort. Your friends and communities flit around you, you learn patiently from your schools and mentors, you seek out companionship and sustenance and safety.
Imagine then that one day you seek out rations to feed yourself, and look up all too late to realize that the sky has been split in two by a dark disturbance, and you cannot escape, are seized by life of an unfathomable scale and pulled upwards into the heavens. You would not enjoy it. Your friends would not enjoy it either. And yet you continue to fish in the Hallowoods. I do not understand it.
The lakes grow over with more ice each day, turning from an invisible flake on the surface of the water into a thick black mirror that obscures the life sleeping in the mud beneath, filled with long white cracks like lightning.
Go home, to your family, to your friends, to wherever you think a comfortable place to spend the winter. Stay inside until spring comes, and the water warms again. Give the fish some rest. And pray that nothing peels open your sky to swallow you.
We go now to one who loves fish.
Story 2 - More Than The Fishes
“Do you think he wants to be friends?” Mort rumbled. The girl beside him sat against his claw, a coat wrapped around her shoulders. The forest was a sea of darkness in all directions, and the stars glinted in the glass of his helmet.
“I don’t know,” the girl mumbled, drawing in the first pages of a book. “Walt never saw this one. It didn’t seem talkative. Just an animal. And I’m not sure you can be friends with an animal.”
Mort would have brought up the dog, but it and its owner had not been seen since the bear and the pit trap, and he did not want to bring up a sore topic. Diggory and Percy sat huddled on the other side of the clearing, having a hushed conversation, and Cindy sat with a silver panel of instruments.
“Bert is my friend,” he said. The battered seagull nestled on his shoulder, sleeping with one glazed eye open. “Although Bert was not my friend at first. He tried to eat us, back when he was lots of birds. But when he’s just one bird he’s nice.”
“I guess Nimbus is friendly too,” Riot said, and looked up. The cat sat on the outskirts of their little rock-guarded clearing, staring out at the forest, tail raised and perfectly still. “But like. That bear did not seem friendly.”
“I’ll see next time,” Mort said, and tilted his skull down to look at her drawing. “What are you doing?”
“I’m taking notes,” she said, and lifted the book. “My friend Walt, he filled a whole journal with these. What these creatures are. How to deal with them. To… to make better friends, I guess.”
“It’s really good,” Mort said. “The drawing. I wish I could draw.”
“Here,” said Riot, and she set the book on his claw, flipped over to a blank page, and offered a tiny pencil. “I’m about done. Give it a try.”
He reached out with his gloved hand and pinched the pencil delicately between two fingers; managed not to drop it as he moved it to the page.
“I remember you,” Riot said. “You weren’t at Walt’s funeral but you were at the fight.”
“Yeah, I didn’t know a Walt,” Mort rumbled as he drew. “But I was there with my family. Polly and Yaretzi. They wanted to fight the guy with too many souls, so I helped do that.”
“You did,” Riot sighed, and laid her head against the metal of his claw. “They’re the wolf guy and the demon lady, right? Are they nice to you?”
“Other way around,” Mort said. “Yeah, they’re nice to me. Aren’t families always?”
“They should be,” Riot sighed. “Sometimes they’re complicated. Mine’s pretty good by comparison and it’s still tough. My mom didn’t even say goodbye to me when I left.”
“I didn’t say any goodbyes either,” Mort said. “I just went.”
“She could have, and she didn’t,” Riot said. “She doesn’t understand that like, I need to do this. It’s the least I can do for Diggory, and it’s my job as Groundskeeper. It’s what Walt would have done if he’d known where or how.”
“I don’t think mine would understand either,” Mort said. “They know me who I am, and that is Mort. I came out of the water, where I used to watch the fishes. And I cut the bad man’s hand off a few times, and I punched the people they want me to punch, and I put all the ghosts free with my claw. I do that. But they don’t remember Barty. Only I remember him, now. I’m him in my dreams. I know a lady, there, who talks to me. And she has parts of Diggory’s face. Mort could stay at the hotel and work the hotel desk. But Barty can’t. This is what Barty would have done. If he’d been stronger. Polly and Yaretzi won’t understand that.”
“I get it,” Riot said, and peeked up at his drawing. “The last time my mom knew me, I was some girl who’d basically never been outside, who only knew about the world because of TV shows and movies and video games, who couldn’t do anything for herself. And when she came back, some other Riot was here, who carries a sword and had lived on her own and could take care of herself. It’s like she’s getting to know me all over again. I just hope when I get back, that she’ll give the new me a chance. That she’ll see, oh, Riot can actually do stuff on her own now.”
“I hope so too,” Mort said.
“Nice picture,” Riot said, and took the pencil as he offered it back. “What are all these circles?”
“They’re the fishes,” Mort said. “Staring down at me. There’s their little eyes, and those are supposed to be the fins. And that big one is the sun.”
“It’s, uh. Abstract,” Riot said. “Very nice.”
“I used to want to go back,” Mort said. “I thought it would be easier. Everybody pushing and asking me to hurt people. I’m not a violent person. But I can’t go back now. I have things up here. Polly and Yaretzi and Bert and all you people. I want more than the fishes now.”
“I want more than the fishes too,” Riot said, and stared at the drawing for a few moments before there was a distant crash in the trees, and the one with the blue hair came falling back out of the air into the clearing.
“Any sign of mister Mendoza?” Cindy said as soon as Olivier landed. Olivier dusted the black pine needles from his cloak.
“No,” Olivier said, “and we need to get moving again. I think that the…”
He did not have time to finish; two trees splintered on the far side of the clearing as a gigantic skull pushed through, and twin rows of huge claws tore up the luminescent earth.
Marketing - Middle Of Nowhere
I didn’t think places like this still existed.
I mean, I knew they did hypothetically, but it’s still a shock to see. You won’t believe it. The place I am currently standing is a little cold. It’s wide open. All the way the horizon, in every direction, there is nothing. There’s some mountains over there. There is just grass in an unappealing sort of beige, and pools of water in big muddy puddles. No footsteps. No tire tracks. No roads or cities or telephone poles or lights. No Dreaming Box.
How did this happen, you know? When they were making the map of America did they just forget to add this spot for urban development? All the machines and all the billboards and all the great big industries—they don’t matter in a place like this. There’s just my reflection, in the water. And I do see Lady Ethel Mallory there, but then again I don’t.
That was a beautiful woman who was… not ambiguous. Symbolic. She was beautiful but not aloof, she was stunning but alluring. Famous, because people love famous people, but not so far away that you couldn’t still hope to be part of her family. She had gorgeous fashion and amazing sunglasses and all the riches of the world at her feet.
The reflection, arguably, is still Lady Ethel Mallory. But it’s a version of her that is huge and malformed, twisted by time like the ripples in the water, and her hat is missing and her coat is torn and she’s lost one of her beloved pets. And that one… I don’t know what she’s hanging on for. It’s certainly not to be America’s sweetheart anymore, quarterly profits are gone. That stranger in the water is someone I’ve tried to ignore for twenty years. Someone I barely know.
God it’s boring out here. I think the new me still hates nature.
Story 2, Continued - More Than The Fishes
*humming Fly Me To The Moon*
We return now to Mort.
The bear toppled the trees as it broke into the clearing. It was large—bigger than Mort, bigger than Yaretzi in her wolven form, and it would have toppled the little research vessel he had once sailed through the disappearing ice flows.
But Mort was larger now, and the metal that wrapped his bones was sturdy, and as his companions fled past him, he stood. This is a time to fight, he thought, as the animal let loose a guttural bellow that shuddered in its half-formed ribs. Is it so different, he thought, from my bird? Bert took to the air and cried out as he wheeled over the clearing.
“Mort, run!” Diggory called from behind him as the group retreated.
“I will,” Mort said, and watched the little green fire blaze in the eye of the bear. “But you run first.”
The bear grunted, and reared up on its hind legs; it towered into the trees, paws the size of anchors. Mort would have done the same, except that he was already on his hind legs, and not nearly as massive. Even so, he stood his ground, and ignored the calls from behind him.
“Hello,” Mort called out. “Will you be my friend?”
The bear only breathed when it roared, and its breath condensed in roiling clouds, and then with a thunderous step it crossed the clearing towards him. That was decidedly not friendly, he thought, and it flung a paw towards him. He reached out to grab it with his own claw, and went sliding back across the forest floor as the silver edges of his pincer cut into the bear’s great wrist. He laughed, and held back the bear’s huge arm, and where his claw touched the bear’s paw it smoked like a fire. The bear shrieked, and wrenched its paw away from him, and backed away a step.
“I’m sorry,” Mort said, and looked up as a second massive claw dropped upon his glass dome like a hammer…
He is fine, of course. That dome was made to withstand the pressure of the deep ocean, it would take more than the swipe of a large bear to shatter it, but…
Interlude 2 - Responsibility
Imagine if it had. If it had flattened him like an automobile in a high-speed accident. If his bones were shattered and the light dissipated from his sockets. Would I be responsible for that? I should never have interfered, it is already so much more difficult than I thought it would be.
The problem with trying to do anything is that you will never be sure you did it right until after. And any misstep here, now, could cost so many of your little lives. I know you would die anyway, but if I try and I fail, it feels as though it falls on my shoulders.
How they would laugh, in the Council of Heavens, to see me fretting over things so small. But it was the way the one who made this forest, and these heralds and this heart would have fretted. He loved little details like that.
Mort is alright, but he is lost in thought, for a moment. He remembers laughing with a woman with a great number of tattoos as they load equipment, and shaking hands with the Prime Minister for the first time, and sailing with an old bird of a woman through a sea of ice in search of fossils and ancient secrets. And then he is back, with his friends, and a giant bear looms ahead of him and bears down again with its claws. We had best go now to one close to Mort.
Story 3 - The Brightest Bird
Bert was not what you would call an intelligent bird. Bert had no concept of her own name. She did not have many concepts at all, and the ones she did have fluttered around in her mind like wayward feathers. If there was a time when she was a normal bird, hatching and learning to fly and eating garbage wherever it could be found, it was a hazy mote of blue light in the dark long night of her past. She had drunk of the water one day, and fallen in, and been swept downstream, and that was it for Bert’s old perception of reality.
When she had awoken, she had been part of a thousand minds that could largely only agree on one thing: hunger. And she had been hungry ever since, but no number of little fishes and writhing worms and eels could satisfy her now. She moved as one with the Colony, and feasted on anything that flitted past their dam. And so the pile of death that was Bert now as it was a thousand other seagulls expanded, tumbled further downstream until it could go no more, and there grew fat on the proceeds of the river. Never satisfied, of course. She could not remember being satisfied in life, either, for that matter. She had been a hungry bird.
It was maybe that her new perch was big and shiny and red, and glittered to the eye as if valuable, or that when he had taken apart the Colony blow by blow, he had smelled like it ever since, or maybe that he was like her in that he was dead. He also smelled like corpses and garbage, two delightful things. But if she had to choose a reason why she had followed the big red nuisance away from the rest of the Colony, sat on his shoulder and picked grubs out of his plating as he trundled through the forest, it was because he was as welcoming to her as any nest or tree or gentle place. And so she nested and avoided little sparks of fire tossed by his friends and did not think about how hungry she was, or much of anything at all. The world slid by around her, and she stayed high on her perch, announcing to any other passing gulls that this perch was hers.
Once before, when the big red perch was in danger, she had called out for the Colony, and it had responded. It remembered. It was Bert too. They were all Bert. And all that she cared about and saw, they also cared for and beheld, and when she crowed to gouge out the eyes of the intruders the storm descended.
And now, as the titanic polar bear tried to rip her favorite perch apart, get at all the little bones inside of him, she cried out to the stars for the Colony. Come, she said. Come eat this big beast’s brains and eyes and soft tissues, feast on his snippety flesh.
“Bert!” the big red shiny called out below. He said other words she did not understand, too. She was preoccupied with her summons, and when she had given it, she returned to the matter at hand, and dove for the bear’s remaining eye.
She ran into its skull full force, and dug her talons in to any meat she could find inside the eye socket, gnawed with the tip of her beak. This is what you get when you try to destroy my perch, she thought. Also you smell terrible and delicious.
The beast roared like the ocean, and pulled away from her red big shiny, who had been a little crunched. It swept its claws against its face to catch her, and she dodged the first swipe as she dug her beak in deeper, it only caught the tip of her wing. She looked up to the sky with her only eye, but she could see far beyond the pines.
No, she thought? No Colony? Am I alone? Am I the last of me?
The sky was empty. No birds circled or cried or cawed in triumph. Her eye fell on the big red.
You are my Colony, she thought. It was all I needed.
She ripped ribbons of blackened flesh away, and downed them, and was not satiated. She croaked as a long claw pierced her wing, and then the bear flung her against the ground, and flattened all her bones into one long mass.
Had she been a brighter bird, she might have thought, run, you big idiot, while you can. You are big and made of metal and beautiful and I am only a little bird, and the life I give for you is ten times better for the time we have spent in it. Go make it longer.
But it only occurred to her that she was hungry, and that she was about to die, and that she very much enjoyed the shine of the color red.
When the teeth closed around her, she thought of dark little nests, and the black water of the river where she had clung to the Colony, and the crevice in big red’s armor where she could hide, and she was not afraid. And then she closed her last, rotting eye, and as the red light of her friend disappeared into the trees, thought of nothing at all.
Outro - Fishes
Fishes. Abhorrent creatures for the most part. Lolgmololg has long laid claim to the life that churns about in the mud and boils in the volcanic vents, and eats worms and algae and thinks not of the future in any way. And she can have it. But I wonder now if I have been too hasty in my judgment.
Do I mock her because she enjoys relaxation and solitude? Must everything that I do be a testament to my ability and value? I have eschewed the Council, but I know they still listen to echoes of this dream.
Maybe I should be like a fish. Sleep somewhere, or drift wherever the sunlight and the current leads, and think not of anyone listening, think not of anyone at all. Just exist. A living thing for the sake of being alive and nothing more. A disappointment, really, but only in that there is an absence of expectation entirely.
But I cannot sleep yet. Until this journey finds its joyous end or its watery grave, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting ichthyologically for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Big Catch' 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!