Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Beast the Bear as usual), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood and Gore, Electrocution, Birds, Gun Mention, Static (including sfx), Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Consumption of Inedible Materials (Bert), Religious Violence, Child Sacrifice
Intro - Alone In Nature
You have always liked to be alone in nature, although you have never quite determined why. Perhaps it is that no one is watching here, and so there is no one to judge. You can do what you wish, as free as any croaking frog or soaring heron.
Perhaps it is that you are so far away here from a world that demands so much. Lost in winding, unspoken paths between the twisting pines, one might almost forget that there is out there somewhere a world that demands you to conform and function.
Perhaps you feel your past is forgotten here, and your old selves can remain forever buried beneath the tangled roots, forgotten by time. But deep down, you know, it is because you know you are watched by every tree, listened to intently by the wind, embraced by a forest that is itself in endless transition with the seasons, and it welcomes you with a hello from the Hallowoods.
Right now, I am sitting by a gated window. Around me is a beautiful morning. The sun rises, little black birds sing ancient songs, and the landscape glistens with a pale frost. Through the window, there is a small man with his head on the reception desk, wondering if he will ever outrun himself. Around him is a hotel where hunter and hunted alike build together a home. The theme of tonight’s episode is Natures.
Story 1 - How Long To Hunt
Yaretzi rose well before the Countess, who habitually stayed up in the long hours of the night and slept for most of the day, which Yaretzi had come to accept as part of the delicate balance of their relationship. A child of the sun and a child of the moon, Yaretzi thought, and admired the pale woman asleep in a mess of dark tousled hair.
What am I doing entangled with someone who was designed to kill me? She did not know the answer, but planted a quiet kiss on the Countess’s dreaming temple before readying herself for the day. She pulled on her shirt and buttoned her managerial vest, adjusted the fall of her hair and her jewelry which she always slept in, and went downstairs to greet the sunrise.
The low beams of light shone across the lobby, and illuminated Apollyon who sat at the reception counter with his head on the countertop, the curls of his hair aglow. It was quiet; the Count’s followers would not be up for a few hours yet, and no guests had begun their morning check-outs.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Hello, Yaretzi,” the devil grumbled. “Did you sleep alright?”
“I slept sufficiently,” she said, and descended the last of the stairs to join him at the desk, looked over the books he slumped on.
“No new guests?”
“None, although the Count has ordered breakfast in bed. I wonder if we’re entering a quiet season,” said Polly.
“Makes no difference to us I think,” Yaretzi said. “Unfortunately the power that runs this place cannot be bought easily.”
“Do you think he’s alright?” Polly said, and tilted his head up towards her. Although he never slept, it was the most tired she had ever seen him, short of the rescue from Rick Rounds.
“I am sure he is fine,” Yaretzi said, and put a hand on his shoulder. “I am proud of you for giving him space to grow.”
“You shouldn’t be,” Polly said, and sat up, stretched. “I’m hardly pleased about it. I worry constantly. Who knew I could be such a pessimist?”
“What do you worry about?” Yaretzi said, although she already knew all the answers.
“That he’s not going to make it back to us,” Polly said. “That somewhere out there is something that could actually do him harm. That those so-called friends of his just want to use him for some dangerous mission. That someday when I’m all alone Rick Rounds will come back and I’ll have to kill him. Or that Typhon will find some loophole in our agreement and come back to ruin me.”
She raised an eyebrow at the last one, which was new to her.
“I know you do not sleep,” she said. “But maybe sometime you should try. You seem as though you could use it.”
“How long do we wait?” Polly said, and looked to her. “Before deciding he really is in danger? Before we go looking?”
“Longer yet,” she said. “He smells like seagull and drowned corpse. I can track him down if it becomes necessary. And you have powerful spells.”
“I don’t,” Polly said. “The ones I used to haul him out of the sea were in a book in my suit jacket. The one I lost in the Atlantic.”
“I want you to go on a walk today,” Yaretzi said, and prodded him out of the chair. “Get some fresh air. You are inconsolable lately.”
“I’ll do that,” he sighed, and left the reception desk, made for the stairs. “Thank you.”
Yaretzi was alone in the lobby then, and she soaked up the rays of the sun as they traveled across the desk, warmed her skin.
How long, she wondered? How long can I be the only even-tempered one holding this place together? And how long should I wait before I go hunting for Mort?
How long before it is too late?
Interlude 1 - Hiking Challenge
The world is filled with a thousand natural wonders. Redwood trees and rocky mountains, grand canyons and titanic waterfalls. Have you tired of all of them? Have you grown bored of all that the expanse of the earth has to offer? If so, have no fear! A new wilderness far beyond the earth waits for you.
The Northmost Woods are dismissive of the laws of nature, such as ‘there is North and South’ or ‘the space between two points should be as long as the distance between them’. This makes it an exciting new challenge for even the most experienced hiker.
With scenic gulches into the void, living and hungry greenery, colors beyond human sight, mountains that shift and travel across the horizon, and wildlife bent out of shape by the impossible gravity of the blood of a god seeping into the earth, you will find the Northmost like nothing you have ever seen before, or will see again.
We go now to one who has not enjoyed her experience in the Northmost Woods.
Story 2 - Bear Teeth On A Blue Screen
Riot had once driven a campervan, racing away from the thrashing shapes of Clara’s parents as they tore at the sides of her vehicle, and that was her introduction to the dangerous creatures of the Hallowoods. She had tried, although failed, to hunt a deer with Clara in the months they spent each waking moment together. It had enough eyes to see them coming a mile away.
She had been stalked by the Instrumentalist and Big Mikey, and with Walt had driven away Froglins and Griffocaughs and Mr. Friendly with his blackening bite. She had pored over each of the dozens of creatures he’d documented, so as to better add new ones to the roster. Giant piles of rats and Night-Gaunts and titanic herons had all stalked across her path. And yet, for all the beasts of the world that she had faced, she could barely hold on to her sword as she watched the mountainous shape of the bear thunder towards her, with paws as big as the bunker doors.
She would rather be no where else than beside Olivier, beside her friends—and yet, some quiet part of her thought, they are all immortal in some way, and I keep breaking my bones.
Olivier was by her side, and their dark eyes shone with flickers of cerulean light. Percy and Diggory bristled with the potential for violence. But as the great bear bore across the rocky clearing, maw open wide enough to swallow her whole, it was Mort that ran out to clash with the beast ten times his size.
“Did you eat Bert?” he cried, and wound back with his gauntlet. “You ate my friend!”
Mort’s fist collided with the great skull of the bear, and Riot tried to keep her footing as the wind of the bear’s momentum sent loose soil and stones flying past her. The bear’s titanic form rippled for half a moment, Mort’s metal fist planted in its forehead, before Mort went spinning backwards, and the bear in turn was knocked from its original course off to Riot’s side.
The bear rolled over once before rising to its massive paws again. A green flame burned in one dark eye socket, and clouds of dust billowed from the cavities of its skull like a mockery of breath. There was a new black crack through the center of the skull now, and from it dripped an ichor like ink that dribbled over its flaming eye, its bloodstained jaws, and into the underbrush, sprouting droplets of new vines and ivies wherever it fell.
Diggory leapt toward the bear in a thirty-foot arc. They landed on the bear’s head, and their black-knife fingertips raked across its exposed skull, sent chips flying and cut jagged grooves into the surface. The bear bellowed and pawed at its head, and Riot took the moment to dash over to where Mort had landed in the underbrush.
“Mort? Are you okay?” she said.
“It got Bert,” a voice said. She could not see a skull in the black glass dome of the diving suit.
“I’m sorry dude,” Riot said, and glanced up to the bear. Diggory retreated up to balance between its shoulderblades as the bear swiped at them with black claws much longer than Diggory’s.
“But we kind of need you to fight this guy right now,” Riot added. “Get revenge.”
“Revenge,” Mort grumbled, and his skull bubbled out from the inside of the suit, watched her with green-flame eyes from the bottom of the dome. “What’s revenge?”
“Revenge is like, when someone hurts you, you hurt them back, so you’re even,” Riot said. “Go get even.”
She winced as the ground shook; the bear thrashed up into the air and then brought itself down into the underbrush back-first, which flattened Diggory into the earth. It rolled upright again to find a face full of blazing fire, smoldering from the eyes and joints of Percy’s silver body.
“Diggory!” Percy screamed, and his metal hands blazed with piercing light, and he drove two bolts of phantasmal flame into the bear’s face. The massive beast bellowed and recoiled, shuffled backwards; the heat set the stained fur around its skull to smolder and filled the starlit clearing with a poisonous smell.
The bear was rocked, then, as Mort threw himself into its side, and sank his silver-tipped claw deep between its exposed ribs. Black liquid spattered across Mort’s armor, and the bear wavered on its feet before promptly kicking Mort square in the chest with a powerful back leg. The impact sent Mort skidding across the forest floor again, tearing through shrubbery in colors that Riot could barely comprehend and slamming into a shelf of jagged rock.
The bear did not immediately rise again, but languished on its side for a moment, seeping whatever ichorous substance it was filled with. This is my chance, Riot thought, and dashed forward, felt a wind form in the otherwise weatherless forest as Olivier soared above her.
“Ollie!” she called. “Supe me up!”
Olivier called back as she drew closer, was beginning to realize just how massive the bear’s skull was compared to her, how easily it could crush her with a single snap.
“That could kill you!” Olivier called.
She ignored that, and neared the bear’s missing eye, silver sword in hand. There was a blistering arc of blue lightning, then, pouring from Olivier’s hands down into the blade of her sword, sparking and blistering one insulated handle away from her skin.
She screamed, and with a leaping lunge, planted the conduit blade directly into the split skull of the bear. She stood for a moment in front of it, watched as the ribbon of blue light crackled and sizzled in its long-dead flesh, and the bear’s remaining green eye flickered like an electric bulb.
And then it reared up, and almost faster than she could blink, whipped her with the back of a massive paw, and she shattered, and flew off her feet into the sharp boughs of a pine tree. Her vision was paltry and shock-white, and she watched the bear rise on its short hind legs, and it gave a roar that filled the clearing and the horizon with a shuddering light. She could not see at all now, but she could hear the roar and a gunshot like a peal of thunder and an earthquake rising to consume her…
Marketing - More Of Nevada
How is there this much nothingness. It’s empty. It’s all empty. Are you bored hearing me say that again? Well I guarantee, it’s not as bored as I am walking through Nevada. I feel like I’m walking on the surface of Mars, if Mars had been planted with weeds. One lightly brown road, surrounded by lightly brown grass and small stones, stretching from one horizon to the other like a suture.
But then again, perhaps I should be grateful. That I am so alone for this part of my journey. Because time alone is time to think, and also time not to get eaten by what’s become of our customer base. You think I’m ravenous? The things I’ve seen on drone footage would shock you.
*buzzing of her pet blackfly*
At least I still have you for company. Yes. Who’s mother’s favorite? Yes? It’s you. It’s you.
Maybe I hate this landscape because it’s not so different from New Mexico, and I always hated it there too. Somehow it felt like there was nothing around that I could grab onto, pull myself away from that trailer park and that gas station and that body and that life. I hated the sun staring down on me every single day, like a bug under a magnifying lens. I had one escape and it was online, because that world had no horizons, and in that world I could be absolutely anyone.
*sound of metallic tapping*
Nope. No connection. The battery in my glasses has been dead for a while now. And there’s no Prime Dream for me anymore. Only the horizon, and the sky, and that awful staring sun.
*greater blackfly buzzes again*
And you. My one consolation as I look for an end to this blank canvass of a state.
Story 2, Continued - Bear Teeth On A Blue Screen
What was it you once said? You were going to eat my eyes or something to that effect? I forget. How idle all those threats became, in the end. My eyes feel quite safe where they are, thank you.
We return now to Riot Maidstone.
“Where is this?” said a voice. Riot looked around to find herself in shorts, sitting on an expansive sofa in a cavern of a room. A five-foot television screen set into one wall burbled with light. A girl sat beside her in a pajama onesie covered in eye motifs.
“This is my old bunker,” Riot said. “Where I used to live with my mom. I sat right here, learning about the whole wide world through a screen, really. I think I wore a hole in this cushion.”
“Good place for a slumber party,” Danielle said, arms wrapped around her legs. “Speaking of which, it’s been super hard to get a hold of you. Have you been sleeping okay?”
“Sorry. No,” Riot said. “But you could reach out to other people, right?”
“I’ve tried a few times. But you’re way cooler about there being a girl who pops up in your nightmares sometimes. And remembering the dreams afterwards. I think you’re a lucid dreamer,” Danielle said. There was a yellow reflection in her eyes despite the blue light of the television. “Where are you? Is everything okay?”
The images on the screen, Riot noticed, were the chomping teeth of a bear, rending claws raking through pale flesh.
“Am I dead?” Riot said.
“What?” said Danielle. “Why would you be dead?”
“I was fighting a bear,” Riot said. “A really big one. Like huge. Bigger than Big Mikey. And everyone else was there… well, not everyone. Jonah and Hector are missing. But most of us.”
“Missing?” Danielle said. “Like, missing or missing?”
“I’m not sure,” Riot said, and rubbed at her hair. It hung long around her shoulders, like it had before she shaved it. She had left the locks lying on the bathroom sink. Was that what they had used, she wondered, to make Clementine? “It’s bad, Danielle. There’s a guy called the Faceless King, and he’s super freaky, and he doesn’t want us getting through these woods. But we’re trying.”
“How can I help?” Danielle said. “I can send the Scoutpost in, I bet they would…”
“Don’t send anyone,” Riot said quickly. Teeth broke through bone on the television. “Maybe it’s not my decision to make. But I don’t think you should. Because they will die. We might die. I might be dying, I’m not sure. If I am, tell my mom I love her, okay? That she was right, and staying at home was probably the smart thing to do. I’m not sorry for leaving. But she was kinda right.”
Danielle stared at her for a moment, and opened her mouth to speak, but Riot could not hear her because the television volume was suddenly on, and the talking screaming roaring of the bear was overwhelming…
She sat up and shrieked, and fell back onto her back, clutched her ribs.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Olivier said, and she found that the witch was kneeling over her, hands outstretched. “I’m sorry. I hoped you would stay under for a little more of this.”
“What’s going on? Is everyone okay?” Riot said. She would have asked if she was okay, but she knew she was not; a piercing pain jolted through her midsection as she spoke. She tried to lay very still, and just tilted her head to the side. She found that she lay on Olivier’s bloodstained cape, a bed of pine needles beneath.
Diggory crouched nearby, watching her with something like concern in their milk-white eyes, while Percy stood. Cindy appeared to be mending a hole in Mort’s armor plating with a welding torch, and behind them all sat a still mountain of flesh that was the bear, both eyes dark.
“Did we do it?” Riot whispered.
“Shh,” Olivier said, and put a hand on her forehead. “This is going to sting. But yes, yes we did.”
Riot smiled, and then screamed as Olivier’s hand twitched, and her broken rib jumped back together beneath her skin.
One more win, she thought. World nothing. Riot takes game.
Interlude 2 - Cold Dead Asteroid Cities
If there is a universe filled with life, you must think, what must it be like? Why have you not encountered it in your journeys through the stars by now?
The answer to both of these questions is that you do not want to know. You have not journeyed far, and life is a broad category. The way it works for you, with millions of tiny cells working together like ants to form muscle and bone and vein and organ and tendon is quite bizarre.
There are a million tubes in your brain, and they pilot a skeleton wrapped in meat and grow untrustworthy when supplied with the wrong balance of chemicals. Five fingers, five toes, but only four limbs. Such arbitrary numbers. What is also life, what also bears a soul in this universe is so far beyond your criteria of what life is that to explain it would be useless.
But it is like you in some senses, wherever you go. It is here only a brief moment before it tears itself apart, because life is in living a fragile thing. Some form their cities on asteroids or learn to walk in dream and build their temples or attempt to befriend cats.
But in the end, they wither at their own hand. Greed or selfishness, mistake or assured destruction, they leave their temples and cities and worlds cold long before the next civilization rises somewhere distant.
But that is all in the past, dreamer, and your world still has a little life in it yet. We go now to one who has very little at all.
Story 3 - Empty Vessel
Indrid Buckley was not kind. Kindness was a tree that you had to foster in gentle soil. A fruit that had to be cultivated. Her soul was as barren as the stony floor of Christ’s tomb, and her heart as empty.
She was not happy, for the Lord had looked upon her life and decided that there was no happiness she would be allowed to keep, and if there was one sin she was guilty of, it was that she had stopped trying to find happiness for him to take away. But she understood why she was not allowed to keep them, that the distractions permitted to others would take away from her purpose in the lord’s army, a purpose that the Vicar had blessed her with clarity in helping her to discover.
Indrid Buckley was a vessel. No more, no less. And when the holy spirit filled her, she could do anything. Walk among the ranks of enemies unrecognized and unscathed. If God had his hand on her shoulder, waiting to strip away any trace of worldly pleasure, she at least knew that he was near. That he had pared her down to the core, peeled away every sin and temptation. There was nothing left of her except a cold, clean instrument, and today, his will was surgical in nature.
She studied the compass again, a black dome of glass in a bone white case. One more artifact provided by the Vicar. How strange that in a place so drenched in the holy blood of the Dawn, the building before her still attracted the needle so.
She switched to a different tool; a pair of large binoculars. If only Winona had stayed at their congregation longer, she would have made a wonderful companion for Indrid’s missions. Certainly the blade that woman carried would have been convenient today.
But instead of one of my eyes, which I very much want back at some point, she watched through the round glass lenses. Topiary bushes, two great stone lions, huge brass doors, high-up windows with metal bars. There was a dome on the very top, four floors up, with a balcony. Now that might be easier to enter through unseen. She tucked the compass away and slid on the black stone ring in her pocket, bathed herself in holy darkness.
She took a few steps forward when a sudden sound caught her ear, and she froze. Two figures barged out of the forest a hundred feet away, headed straight for the library doors. A small old woman with frizzy grey hair and a weapon in her hands, and a bandy-legged man with a silver ponytail, a wide-brimmed hat, a yellow jacket, cowboy boots with spurs carrying a javelin.
They did not turn to her, did not notice where the forest became suddenly full of deep shadow. She crept up to a tree trunk and watched them from behind it. Instead, they marched between the lions and up the stairs to the great brass doors, and the woman in the combat boots kicked the door several times.
“Open up!” she screamed. “You book-nabbing monsters! I want my grandson back!”
Indrid was struck for a moment. There had been a fire like that in her, once. Some warmth that made the cold clay to stir. It had died with Al.
The frizzy woman pushed on the brass doors, and stepped into darkness. The silver man glanced around, and his eyes flickered across Indrid unseeing, before he followed the woman into the library. The door slammed shut as the darkness swallowed him.
Excellent, she thought. Visitors will occupy their attention for a few minutes. Thank you God, she thought, for this blessing. She walked out of the forest, through the gardens and the grey fountains, and placed her first sandal of steady footing against the stone wall of the library until it stuck. Please Lord, she thought, if it is your will. Help me to bring the Wicker girl home.
Outro - Natures
Natures. Are we animal, or are we something more? That is the great temptation, to see ourselves as unique and special and better than the vast majority of life. You look to your fellow inhabitants of your planet and find them lacking in art or games of chance or cutlery or however you define intelligence. We have invented these things, you think, and therefore we are a class above. So worthy. Are we not made in god’s image?
God is disgusted by your image. On our scale of life, your kinds are as countless as the insects of your earth are to you. And we, by the same measure, are just as insignificant to the Outsiders. Their realm outside of space and time, I cannot begin to fathom.
No matter our magnification, we are all animals. Vicious, and tender, and bleeding, and our instincts compel us to feed and prey and protect and create and destroy. In that, dreamer, despite the vastness of our differences, we are the same, we are across the universe the same.
A most beautiful animal indeed, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting naturally for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'No Sleep' 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!