Content warnings for this episode include: Abuse, Bullying, Animal death (Beast the Bear as usual), Kidnapping and abduction, Blood, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs, Body horror, Religious Violence , Child Sacrifice, Al Has No Skin As Usual
Intro - Three Cards Again
Three cards lay before you, different than your cards of fortune. These are black as rot, shine like obsidian, bought at a precious price. They float in a pool of blood that seeps across the wooden floorboards of your home, and you close your eyes. For the present, you think, and pull the first card. Death. But you knew that already. It burns your fingertips as you touch it, sets your mind ablaze with thoughts. This tomb of a forest reaching farther year after year, choking the bones of your friends beneath its roots.
The second card is the past, and it is Life. You left yours behind long before the rains. It was one of the first choices you ever made for yourself. It is all so far gone, now, struggles to live even in your memory. There is a final card, and you already know what it must be. It is the Void, the endless future, the darkness that expands to blot out the heavens, join the black circle of the horizon, a universe that sings Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I sit on a grandfather clock. Its face, however, is not patterned with numerals, but with the sun and moon silhouetted against each other, sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning, and it predicts not the time but the course of the day. Around it, surrounded by dirty trays of food, sit five children. At least two of them are alive. The theme of tonight’s episode is Forecasts.
Story 1 - Touring The Grounds
“What’s up with your face?” Al said.
“Al,” said Russell. “It’s rude to ask about people’s bodies.”
“I want to know too,” said Johannah. She sat protectively over a half-finished cafeteria croissant. “Is that a mask or your skin? You look like a real freak.”
“This is just how I look,” said Harrow, who was apparently a student in addition to being their host. Harrow’s face was as pale as a porcelain mask, and reflected light as if smooth. It moved when zir talked, but the mouth inside was black, as was zir eyes. “My mom looks the same way. I think it’s a part of her covenant.”
“What’s a cormorant?” said Johannah.
“Covenant,” said Al. “God makes covenants. It’s like a promise. Like the rainbow after the flood, or Abraham with the stars.”
“You know a lot about that, huh?” said Russell.
“My mom used to take me to church,” said Al.
“Well, sure, a covenant is like a promise from god, I guess,” Harrow said. “And different people have different promises. Some of them are nicer than others.”
“God promised your mom she would look like an evil doll, then,” said Johannah.
“Be nice,” said Russell.
Johannah stuck out her tongue and finished her croissant, batted away a crawling green hand. The single limb that was Arnold pulled itself along the floor with its fingers, and went to sit amidst several orange peels.
“Are you guys okay?” Harrow said. “You have food. There’s water in the bathroom faucet. This is an old guest room, so I don’t think you’re going to be found here for a little while. Just wait here, okay? I’m going to talk to some friends and figure out what to do.”
“Could we talk to whoever’s in charge?” said Russell. “We need to get home to the Scoutpost.”
“And learn more about the school,” Al whispered.
“I need to go to Fort Freedom,” Johannah said.
“Well, I think if we go to the Scoutpost first, the leaders can take you to Fort Freedom,” said Russell.
“Or we could go to Fort Freedom and then my brother and my mom could drive you to the Scoutpost,” Johannah said. Al frowned. They had only just arrived. They couldn’t already be talking about leaving. He hadn’t seen anyone else yet besides Harrow. And Arnold the hand, if he counted. As the argument carried on, he made himself as dim as he could, and then floated back outside of the wall…
And found himself in a weird place. The walls and hallways on the other side weren’t connected or organized properly. They drifted and contorted together, stairways conjoined in impossible contortions, as if it couldn’t decide what lay on the other side.
What kind of building is this, he wondered? His tether, usually so short from the drum sitting beside Russell, the single line holding him to existence, would stretch however far he needed in here. Great, he thought. Let’s see where I can go.
He floated from one scene to the next, spying on the library’s residents as he went. A spry person in a bow tie, arms covered in tattoos, paced around in deep archives talking to himself, a little yellow tape recorder in hand. A woman like him, also a ghost, floated in a dark room even deeper. Her head was covered in a faceless veil, her hands were burned.
You were like me, he thought, as he peered from the wall at her. You died to make God happy. His link was a drum that Russell carried under his arm, and hers was a silver necklace and the charred memories inside of it, one picture almost visible, one blackened to dust.
You are not my daughter, thought the lady.
I’m not anyone’s daughter, he thought in return. But if I see her, I’ll let her know.
The halls seemed empty, but he eventually stumbled into a classroom, with skylights that shed pale light like the moon, and blackboards coating the back wall painted with complex mathematical models in chalk. A man with a leg like skeleton bones stood behind a podium, leaning on his cane. There were dozens of students, some only a little older than him.
He lurked in the darkness of the back, and watched between the rows of desks, past a girl with fluffy black hair, and one with a golden comb tucked in a neat bun. He was not the only ghost here; a big flowy dog hung around, and came to sniff at him as he watched. He tried to restrain a laugh, and reached out a hand to stir its floating ears.
“...time to consider what steps you are going to take next,” the professor was saying. “As you know, the Arcane Program can last a lifetime, but some of you may choose to become teaching staff. Some might choose to become ambassadors for the library, and work with notable clients on Downing Hill’s behalf. Although I know exposure to the world outside sounds tempting, I assure you, this avenue is only to be considered if you are an exceedingly capable student. Or, you can continue your study path for… well, as long as Miss Rescher continued hers. As we reach this final year of Cosmic Economics, who best…”
He paused, and looked up. Several students followed his gaze, and most seemed to look right through Al, scanning the wall idly. The girl with the ghostly dog swirling through her legs raised an eyebrow directly at him, and the professor tapped his cane. It was odd, Al thought; the man’s eyes had no color to them at all.
“Hello,” said the professor. “Are you in my class, child?”
Interlude 1 - One More Week
Sunday, you will not rest. You will spend it splintering wood into boards to repair the decaying beams of your roof; the moisture from the melting sprinkle of snow already leaks in, and you will not get much time to repair it when the winter arrives in full.
Monday, you will search for food. You will find large black mushrooms, although whether they can be safely eaten, whether their eyes are superficial or functional, remains a question. You will trap a small fox with no eyes at all, but release it for the same reason.
Tuesday you will curse the heavens and all who dwell there. Perhaps it was the mottled snow descending from the sky, or perhaps flooding from some greater water source uphill, but the pond where you used to fetch drinking water is now dark.
Wednesday you will meander around in a stupor. Is it the years catching up with you? Or the absence of any kind of escape?
Thursday you will make it to the Dry Market, and find that they are sold out of produce, and canned goods only to be had at a premium. You will go back with less than you expected to bring home, but your money gone all the same.
Friday you will board up the windows as the cold grows worse. It is no great sacrifice to give up the light, you feel. The snow would shroud you anyways. You will have to insulate it better, somehow, when you get the chance. When you are not so tired.
Saturday you will stare at the ceiling, and wait for the leak to return. It always returns, and it must always be repaired. One day, you think, it will not be the roof that gives out, but you. But that day is not today. It may not even be this week.
If you choose to slip beneath the black surface of the bog and sleep, please replace the contents of this forecast for each day with ‘blissful slumber’.
We go now to one who is excited about her week.
Story 2 - A New Sister
“There’s a wall around this place,” Penny said after a few minutes of silence. She sat cross-legged on the floor of the community cottage, wrapped in her grey cloak. It had a rough but distinct texture that she found comforting, and she had made it out of her blanket at the Complex, and she had not been offered any garments yet by the coven that she liked the feel of more. “I almost couldn’t find it.”
“I’m surprised that you could,” Friday said, arms wrapped around her legs. “It’s supposed to be completely hidden.”
Well, I guess I got lucky, Penny thought, but that was far from the truth. She liked the way they were sitting, back to back. It meant that whatever misfortune was approaching her, and one always was, that one of them would see it coming.
“Have you been here always?” Penny said. She had limited displays of human affection to reference, but there was something of the way that Misters Raven and Writingdesk watched her in the eyes of this Grandmother Briar and the Blackwood Coven. Intrigued by opportunity.
“I have not been here long at all,” Friday said. “I escaped a different place called Downing Hill Public Library.”
“So you also ran away?” Penny said.
“In a way,” Friday said. “Downing Hill was my home for a while, but it was never gentle with me, and I’ve outgrown it. They try to make you stronger, there, break you again and again until you don’t. But the more they push me, the more everyone around me gets hurt. They don’t care. The Director will tell you that your powers could save the world, but what she means is that your powers will save her. I hope the people who took you were not so unkind.”
“They were,” said Penny. “They are. They’ve kept me in a glass box for as long as I can remember. One more thing in a prison full of dusty dead things.”
Penny was quiet for a moment, felt Friday’s hand move over hers. She held it. Friday’s hand was cold, but then again, so was hers.
“Did you ever feel me?” Penny said. “Out there? Did you know that I was alive?”
“I wasn’t sure,” Friday said. “How much was wishful thinking. Praying to whatever luck I have that you might still be out there. But I had a dagger. That was part of it. One that absorbed all the evil pouring off of me. It’s gone now. You may not be safe.”
“You will be,” Penny whispered. “While I’m here. So will everyone.”
“It drives you insane, doesn’t it?” Friday said, and leaned back her head against Penny’s.
“Being alone?” Penny said.
“That I’ve gotten used to,” Friday sighed. “The guessing. How that good luck is going to manifest. How the bad luck is going to cost you.”
“I’ve been like you,” Penny said. “Controlled. There was only so much I could sway, inside the box. And the people holding me captive were always so lucky in catching me. I gave up after a while. There wasn’t any chance.”
“Are there any others?” Friday said. “Any friends of yours still stuck there? Where is this place?”
“It’s far,” she said. “Other than that, I don’t know. I think I saw signs for Tennessee. But I don’t really know much geography. I only had so many books. No friends, I didn’t get to meet any others. They were all on different levels, and I think most of them were… dead. Things trapped in boxes and jars and objects. Not many that were living. Or living in the same way. What about you? Do you still have any friends at this Downing Hill?”
“I don’t think so,” Friday said. “One left a long time ago. The Director used them like she uses everyone. Until they break. And I thought I had one, for a while, but she’s exactly the same.”
Friday looked up, and Penny glanced across the room to find an old woman standing in the door. The woman might well have been a forest, for there were bones of little animals caught in her hair, and embroidered vines creeping up from her dress. What decay lies in the middle, Penny wondered.
“If you both are ready,” said Grandmother Briar, “we can begin.”
Friday squeezed her hand, and Penny sat up, turned to look at her.
“It will be alright,” Friday said. “It’s just their way of saying hello.”
“Something bad is going to happen,” Penny whispered. “I know it is.”
“Not anymore,” Friday said. “Not while I’m close to you.”
“It goes both ways,” Penny said, and looked up to the woman watching her from the door.
“Alright,” she said. “I’m ready.”
Grandmother Briar smiled, and drifted over like a winter wind, and helped her up from the floor. She took Penny’s hand in one of hers, and Friday’s in the other. Her hand was warm, and Penny followed her out of the door, and into a night filled with lights.
Marketing - Share A Sickness
It’s raining again. I’ve had my fill of it, but since I don’t have my hat anymore I’ve found a place to cozy up. There’s a strip of beige houses out here in the middle of a beige landscape. Their paint is peeling and their roofs have caved in. But thankfully, some of them have cars rusting in the driveways, overgrown in the lawns, and this lucky person had a campervan. If I curl up just right I can lay on the floor and rest my head on the loft. God I miss the beds at Botco. I’ll never see a twenty-foot mattress again in my life.
You have to appreciate that, Oswald’s workplace benefits. But then again, and here’s a scandal, but I don’t care about him anymore so why would I bother keeping it a secret.
Here. Oswald is also blackwater affected. Maybe worse than I am, he’s been at this for far longer. His eyes have bloomed outwards with that… not telescopic. What’s it called when wasps and flies and things have those round shiny eyes. Bedazzled? I don’t know. He’s got them, right over a lipless sick grin with so many teeth. He wasn’t pretty to look at when I met him. Only gotten worse with time.
Share that with your friends, if you remember it once you wake up. So really, it makes sense that he would be so accommodating. It’s for a curse he pulled us both into. The concentrate I used to drink is the same prescription as his.
It’s odd, you know. Knowing that you share a sickness with someone. It makes it all the worse that he chose to get rid of me. He knows the toll that would take on someone. He wanted me to die out here. I’m going to prove him wrong. Someday. When I’ve got my bearings, when I know exactly who I am and where I need to go, I’m going to come back and ruin his life. That’s a promise.
Story 2, Continued - A New Sister
Past behavior is the best predictor of future performance. So be careful, Oswald. She’s going to bungle that up someday too. You’ll be fine.
We return now to Penny Rescher.
There were too many people around, and she decided she did not like that. She had been grateful for a few hours of solace with Friday in the community room with its round inset floor and pillows and tapestries, but now she was outside, and it was colder than it had been when she arrived, and the sky darker.
Stars peeked from behind the rolling grey clouds, and single snowflakes pierced the veil of the invisible wall to drift across the crowd. The bent tree at the center of the coven was filled with lights, and a great conundrum of crowing ravens, and a crowd of witches lined the path through the cottages and huts. Grandmother Briar joined her hand with Friday’s, and stepped ahead through the crowd towards the tree, turned to face them both.
“We begin,” said the elder, and raised her hands. “Come join me at the Prophet Tree.”
Friday nudged her hand, and Penny nodded, and walked forward. It was uncomfortable having so many eyes on her; strangers at that. At least when Raven and Writingdesk stared at her, they knew who was staring back. Some of the people here did not look much older than her, and others, like Grandmother Briar, seemed timeless. She found herself standing before the tree; where a burbling stream crossed through its roots, black raven feathers and candles blanketed the black soil of the bank.
“Witches of the Blackwood Coven, we welcome a new sister into our circle today,” Grandmother Briar said, and waved. Penny glanced to the crowd behind her; they were joining hands now, spreading out to form a circle around the great tree, hats and cloaks and goggles and sticks and bones gleaming in the well of candlelight.
“On this fortuitous night, we welcome Penny Rescher to our coven,” Grandmother Briar said, and as she did, she knelt and placed her hands in the dark earth, and closed her eyes. Penny watched for a moment as the woman breathed intensely, and then the earth began to shift, ever so slowly. Dark sprouting vines climbed up from the bank where her hands pressed, crept across the earth like winding snakes in all directions, traveled like blood until they had pooled in a second, smaller circle around her and Friday and the tree.
“We ask the greenmother to watch out over this young soul, and bind her spirit to the will of the spring,” whispered Grandmother Briar. “Let her travel safely through your woods, and may she walk unseen by her enemies. May all the great spirits of the stars shine brightly on her, and let her banish the demons of the earth wherever she finds them.”
Grandmother Briar stood, now that the circle of ivy had grown dark. Penny shook her shoe a little to keep a trailing leaf from wrapping around her heel. The grandmother approached, and raised her hands towards Penny. She glanced to her sister for confirmation, and Friday gave her a dark little nod.
Grandmother Briar reached for Penny’s hair, and formed in it a new braid, wove it nimbly. She produced in one hand a thorn, although Penny was not sure where she had gotten it, and tucked it through the end of the braid.
“Sisters of the Blackwood Coven,” Grandmother Briar said, putting both hands on Penny’s shoulders. “Come forward and present your blessings.”
One by one, each of the witches left the circle of hands to approach, stepped over the line of ivy to present Penny with an object. Some wove them into her hair, and others simply folded the object in her hands or clasped a necklace around her neck. A woman with leather goggles and scars on her face tucked a piece of straw blackened at one end into her braid.
A woman wrapped entirely in feathers added one that Penny could not identify; it was white and spotted black. She was presented with a silver surgical needle strung on a length of black thread, and a laurel twig, and a little silver scarab, and a dozen other gifts, until finally the circle of witches was reformed.
“Thank you, sisters, and thank you greenmother for watching over our coven and giving to us your prophecies in the root-waters of this blessed tree,” the grandmother said, and swept her hands out to the audience. “Even now, your spring of reckoning begins to thaw the winter of this dire world. May we all be found humble servants of your will when it begins. Protect these sisters from harm, and bless them with a place in the forest of your future.”
She turned her face downward, and brought her hands together, pointed to the earth. “Penny Rescher is become a sister of the coven. We end now our ceremony. Let us partake.”
The grandmother knelt beside the brook, and the other sisters gathered around it, dipped their hands into the frigid water and raised it to their lips. Some raised their voices in a wordless song, although Grandmother Briar did not sing; merely stared upwards into the branches of the prophet tree as though dazed. Penny reached her hands into the water, but felt Friday’s hand on her shoulder, and so she pulled them away.
“My hair is full of things,” Penny whispered. “It feels heavy.”
“They’re charms,” Friday whispered. “For good luck.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever have that,” Penny whispered, so quietly that only Friday could hear beneath the howling songs of the coven. “Friday? What are we going to do now?”
“Oh? I’ve already made up my mind,” Friday whispered, and took a single black rose, unlikely for the season, and threaded it into the coil of Penny’s braid. “You and I are going to kill everyone who’s ever been cruel to us.”
Interlude 2 - Remember Me From The Orchard
It must be a comfort for you, not to be entirely alone in your experience of life. To enter with a twin or a sibling or a good friend already on the ground. There is for my kind a sort of orchard at the center of the universe. A grove of starlight, where young gods are nurtured by old teachers before they are allowed to pass into the great and unsafe universe beyond it. It is there that you ask questions of all the universe, and are supplied with answers, if they exist. I know there were others there, when I was.
And yet, I do not know. I did not forge a connection with any of them. I hardly know where some have ended up, and I am omnipresent. Perhaps it would simply take me a while to find them. And if I did find them, what would I say?
Hello, do you remember when we were both at the orchard? Yes, the orchard at the center of the universe, that orchard. Yes it has been a while, billions of years in fact, what is new with you? Yes well I was only reaching out because it occurs to me now that I only have one friend in the entire universe left and she is very busy and I cannot ever really trust her again anyway so could we maybe spend a little time getting to know one another, because as it stands we really are strangers anyway.
Can you imagine? What a sickening interaction that would be. No. Better to retain my dignity, and my solace. After all, I am busy too.
We go now to one who has a similarly finite number of friends.
Story 3 - Prone To Panic
Olivier was prone to panic. Downing Hill had done their best to dampen that; they were not going to permit someone to be anxious when the lightning and thunder responded to her thoughts. The missions they had sent her on, before Solomon, had certainly ironed out the wrinkles of her will. And she relied on that, now, as she ran, almost without connection to the Weather, through trees that were dappled with oozing pinks and greens and nameless nothing-colors, with Riot and Cindy and Percy ahead of her, Diggory and Mort fast behind, and a splintering sound in the distance to tell her that the Bear was already on their tail again.
“Bert!” Mort was shouting. “Bert come back!”
“I don’t think the seagull is coming back,” Olivier called, and seized a fistful of the almost nonexistent wind. It did not carry her far, and seemed to resent her, but it landed her closer to Cindy, who stomped through the underbrush like a rhinoceros on the run.
“Cindy, can you shoot it again?” Olivier said, sprinting beside her, trampling over branching vines of the underbrush with her boots. “Maybe get its other eye?”
“I don’t think it makes a difference,” Cindy said, keeping a silver panel in her hands as she sprinted. Its screen glinted with blue shapes that spun and flashed.
“It would be better than nothing,” Riot said, only a few paces behind. Riot ran with her sword trailing behind her, took the occasional swing at a branch that swung too close.
“Your dead friend there has flames for eyes,” Cindy said. “As do all of the Sleepers. I don’t think increasing the skull ratio of the bear will throw it off our trail.”
Riot frowned, and glanced back at Mort, whose giant crashing form tore through the trees like a great boulder. Little sparks of green fire bubbled from his eye sockets and drifted around in his tank before dissipating.
“So what, your rifle isn’t good for anything then?” Olivier said. “Doesn’t it fire silver bullets?”
“I need time to set up,” she said, “and a space to shoot from. We are currently running for our lives!”
“Jonah couldn’t slow it down,” Olivier said. “Hector couldn’t. Mort’s running. There has to be something it doesn’t like. We can take down a Dreaming Box, we can take down this.”
“Let’s focus on getting out of here in one piece,” Riot said.
“I am focusing,” Olivier said, and closed her eyes, and stopped running. The treetops all bled into each other, branches like twisted arms in unison, and the colors fled and spiraled across the pine needles and jagged leaves. Diggory flew past her, and skated to a stop in the dirt.
“Olivier,” they said. “There is an animal. We must run.”
“Bert!” Mort called as he trampled by, although his tone had changed from desperation to despair.
“I’m going to try something,” Olivier said, and turned to face the direction they were running from, where distant pine needles flew into the air above the forest and the sound of snapping trees echoed ever louder.
It is not the first time I have fought giants in this forest, she thought. The difference is that the Weather is far from this place, and all of my friends are here, and so is Riot, and anything could happen to her, and we might be running from death headlong into some other danger, and there’s no way to orient myself and I am losing control and…
Like being above the clouds.
You are a student in the Arcane Program at Downing Hill Public Library, and you are powerful, and everyone knows it. You have top marks. You are loved by the Director because you get things done efficiently and without question. You only need to focus on yourself, and you can will yourself to succeed.
Olivier looked up to the forest, and tried to forget for a moment that there was anyone else at all, anything to distract her from the single obstacle pounding through the treeline towards her. There was a time when she had been a machine that could always go further, an unstoppable force. She stood, and stared, and felt the air, and tried to pretend that the Weather was at her fingertips as it always was, a live wire into the sky.
The crashing stopped before the bear entered the clearing, several jagged slabs of rock jutting out from the writhing earth. She could just see one green eye watching from past the last layer of oil slick pines. And then it rose until it was standing, as tall as the trees itself, claws still spattered with black blood, and the gigantic polar bear shuffled one huge step, two, into the clearing, and growled at her with lipless fangs.
You need time, Olivier thought? I can buy us time. She raised her hands, and pulled with all her might for anything, anything in her that might hold back the massive dead thing before it charged.
Twin arcs of blue light jolted from her fingertips, crackled through the air and collided with the bear, and it fell back a step, bellowed as it shook itself.
“Keep back!” Olivier screamed. “Or I’ll do it again!”
The bear roared like rolling thunder, and crashed down to all fours with an impact that shook the earth beneath Olivier’s feet. Olivier reached for a thunderstorm, for a blizzard, for a thousand shards of ice, and could barely feel the meager wind that surrounded her, lifted her feet from the earth. Wherever the Weather was, it was far away from this cloudless forest and its impossible window into the void, and she was alone as the gigantic bear crossed the clearing, fog rolling from the hollow cavity of its skull.
A glint of light caught her eye, and she glanced to one side. Riot stood with her silver sword outstretched, feet braced. Diggory stood past her, hands of black knives outstretched, and Percy, the embossed metals of his shell crackling with silver light, and to her other side, Mort stood, fire blazing in his skull and a massive silver-edged claw at the ready.
And as the bear catapulted towards her, gigantic teeth and claws outstretched, Olivier was not afraid.
Outro - Forecasts
Forecasts. Who can tell what the next day will bring? No one knows the future, except for those who read the Blood Cards of Xyzikxyz, or La Dernière Page Noire, or have bent the rules of space and time.
I would add the TV weathermen, but they are all but extinct. The weather in the Prime Dream is always sunny. I am not sure I would want to know the future, if I could. Certainly I come close, for although I can not see what is to come, I can see everything that is happening now, and with surprising frequency, the future is a result of the present.
If I really dedicated myself, I am sure there are workings going on in this universe that would alarm me, and some that I would find encouraging. But for now, my focus lingers here with you, on this forest, on those who dream upon this little planet, changing color from blue to black. With an ultimate chance of rain, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting precipitously for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'The Crash' 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!