Content warnings for this episode include: Animal cruelty or animal death (Omen, Bert, Beast as usual), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention, Misgendering, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror
Intro - The Raven Returns
The raven does not ask to enter. You look up one day and realize that it is there, perched amidst the empty cans and moldering meal tins that sit on the shelf over your door, and every other shelf, and table, and floor, and grow deeper with every day of your isolation.
How did you get in here, you ask? All my doors and windows are long boarded. The raven yields no secrets. You do your best to ignore it, return to your routine of sitting and thinking and wishing that you were not thinking, and eating and sitting again. But the raven is not content to sit; when you least expect it it flutters, and screams through the unlit hallways, frightens you in the static light of your television. You beg it to leave, but it will not, and to the ledge over the door, to study you, it always returns.
Will that be the end? Will you sit until you are two corpses rotting away in darkness? Two corpses, one with feathers? The bird cries out in an unclean tongue and you seize your crowbar, march for the window and peel away those long cold nails until each board falls from the sill. You fling open the glass, and feel for the first time in fifteen years the stirring of the breeze.
The raven flies out through the window, into an abyssal night, and you rush to the sill to watch it vanish in plutonian darkness. There are stars outside, and the waves of purple light of your own galaxy, and in the vast shadow of the horizon quoth a forest Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now I lounge on a ledge over a doorway. It is set into a mountainous ridge of black stone. Above is a sky of green fire, wavering in great arcing clouds, for the fire that burns in this place is not extinguished yet, although slowly it dissipates. Below is a man in a yellow coat with yellow boots, knocking his fists against the door until they bleed. The theme of tonight’s episode is Nevermores.
Story 1 - Forever Locked
Jonah Duckworth pushed his matted hair back from his face, and missed his hat. He studied his blood-smeared knuckles for a moment, but the flesh was already closing up. Hard to hurt yourself in the land of death, he thought, and looked up to the door. That titanic monolith, unyielding, ancient. He’d spent so much time here before, praying for escape.
“No luck with the door?” said a little whisper, and he looked back to find a tiny black rat sitting on the outcrop.
“I got lucky once,” Jonah said, and put a hand against the cool stone. “The door on the other side looks like a cabinet. And when it opened, I was in a basement of a very bad man. He’d kidnapped my ma. He was going to kill her. But he’s dead now, and I reckon nobody else will be opening this door anytime soon.”
“But still you strike and scream at it,” said the rat.
“Sorry,” Jonah said, and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I didn’t realize you were around. I’ve been alone here a few days. You mentioned you don’t visit here often.”
“I thought you would be back eventually,” said the rat king, and it scurried down from its rock to sit beside his boot. “The rest of me is elsewhere. But I check in on the workshop just in case.”
“What’s wrong with me?” Jonah said, and knelt down beside the rat, dug his fingers into the dark gravel. “I thought I had this figured out. When last we talked. I could just think and I could return.”
The rat might have raised its eyebrows. “Still caught between worlds, I see.”
“I did it on command, a bunch of times,” Jonah said. “Why can’t I go back now? I need to get back. All my friends are in danger, and the Faceless King is going to kill them.”
“I thought you had learned by now not to confront him,” the rat tuttered. “Especially not in his domain, the Northmost woods. You have power, yes, but you will always be stronger in the forest you have been given. The forest between life and death. You will not be able to travel so freely between them if you die outside of it.”
“His is the forest of death, I suppose,” Jonah sighed.
“You have it all turned around,” whispered the rat. “He guards the life still growing. The tender roots. Your forest is where it meets the barren soil. It is the world outside that is dead.”
“What domain was yours, again?” Jonah said.
“Nothing so eminent,” said the rat. It scurried up his sleeve and perched like a soot stain on his shoulder. “The world beyond. The secrets it holds. The shadow and the forgotten. Sewer pipes and old bones.”
“What am I going to do?” Jonah said, and moved from his knees to sit against the shelf of black stone that trailed down from the ridge. “Is there any other way I can get back to them?”
“There are three crowns, three keys, three doors,” the rat whispered in his ear. He could feel its tiny hands resting in his beard. “The third door is a secret I have not yet discovered. But then again, so were you. The third crown was a mystery to us for years, until you fell out of the door in the sky.”
“How do I get rid of it?” Jonah said, and looked out on the abyss of stone and green starlight. “This crown? I don’t want to live forever. I don’t want to be a part of this. If I kill the heart, will that do it? Will that end all this?”
The rat sighed, and patted his cheek.
“You are become a herald of the end, Jonah Duckworth,” said the rat. “I told you this when last we spoke. You have died. Many times over, and you are not finished. One by one, you will lose each of the things that tie you to your old life, and each time it happens you will die again, and any idea you have of a man named Jonah Duckworth will become further part of the past. You feel it already. That you are distant somehow from that silly foolish man who sailed on the ocean and caught his fish. I am distant too, from my lives crawling in dark places, seeking out garbage and rot. I am ascended. I am a keeper of secrets, now, and I lose the lives of all the rats I have been as I am consumed by the future.”
“I mean this respectfully,” Jonah said, and put his hands against his head. “But I’m not a bunch of rats. My life wasn’t just rooting through garbage and running from cats. I have people that matter, and a mother, and the Scoutpost. A man that I love. These things are important. Protecting them is important.”
“I am sure they seem that way to you,” said the rat. “But you will not be able to. Not even with all the power of your domain. Time will take them away. Garbage and cats and love and home. They will go all the same into nothing. But this work that you have been given, the end which you herald, the great beginning. It will last. It will last forever.”
“Do you have a ladder?” Jonah said, standing up. He scrubbed the burning tears from his face with his coat sleeve. The rat did not lie, he knew. He had no hat, but the light that reflected on the rocks told him that a crown of green fire hovered over his brow. The rat looked around as if double-checking for a ladder before staring at him again.
“Alright, well, I’ll figure something out then,” Jonah said, and turned his back on the door, began to tromp across the desert of empty stones. Somewhere out there, he knew, was a hill slightly raised, with an empty temple on the horizon and a doorway in the sky. “I’ll find another way out.”
“You are not interested, then, in learning about your calling,” the rat said. “You will cling to the dying embers until they turn to ash in your hands.”
“I didn’t say that either,” Jonah said, although he knew it was a lie, and that the rat king probably knew it to be so. “Why don’t you start by telling me everything you know about this change? About what I’m supposed to be a herald of?”
“To tell you everything I know,” said the rat king on his shoulder, “could take forever.”
“Forever?” Jonah said, and slid one step of his boots after another into the wasteland. “We might just have forever.”
Interlude 1 - The Grackle Is Not Death
One day when you can walk no more, you will find the Grackle looming over you, eyes like dark obsidian and feathers bleeding with shadow. It is in its nature to pluck up your soul and carry it away into the sky. It is for its own clandestine reasons that it asks for something small and shining in recent years. If anything, it is a surprise that it maintains any semblance of its old duties at all, for the Industry has departed, their flocks of soul-collectors brought back to the roost to ready for a new assignment, and the Grackle is only one wayward pilferer of souls.
If you should see it, do not attempt to frighten it away, to scream and scare and protest. The Grackle is not death. The Grackle has always been nearby, it is only today that Death has made it visible. The question is only this, in your final moments of consciousness, as the thoughts circulating in your mind of meat and electric impulse flicker and go quiet, do you wish to lie in the soil until the darkness claims you, or do you wish to fly?
We go now to one who rests in the soil.
Story 2 - A Blessing And A Curse
Diggory Graves lay in a bed of black pine needles and fallen leaves. The sky overhead was home to a needlepoint of green stars, and the horizons ebbed with a phosphorous mist that served to separate the abyssal sky from the forest, just as bleak. The underbrush curled around them as they lay; a nearby vine slowly crept around their boot. In a different life, they wondered, if a Prime Minister desperate for answers had not made a terrible bargain, would all their bones be part of this undergrowth, waiting for eternity to arrive?
They turned to look over their companions, who surrounded a small fire, although it was difficult to coax any life from the drenched wood of the Northmost forest. The open flame was an act of rebellion, but with the titanic bear far behind them, one that they had earned. Trees waved in the distance as if stirred by a quiet breeze.
“How is everyone?” Diggory murmured.
“I’ve been better,” Riot grunted. She lay on her back on the other side of the fire, torso wrapped in bandages, and pushed away the cat that kept trying to go walking over her. “Is magic healing even safe? Is there magic radiation I should be worried about? Are my ribs going to be magic now?”
“It’s not safe,” Olivier sighed, sitting beside her. “We’re almost never supposed to do it for other people, because you know how your body works, but it’s hard to know how other peoples’ are supposed to. But I had to try. I hope I did everything right.”
“She can walk, so that’s good enough,” Cindy said from the middle of a black tarp. All the pieces of her disassembled silver rifle were spread out, and she polished each one with a cloth before returning them to the right pocket of her pack. “We’re going to have to move faster. In the same way that trees share information across their roots, blackwater-affected creatures are conscious of each other. I would conjecture that this place is aware of us, now, if it wasn’t already.”
“We’ll go as fast as we can,” Olivier said, and put her hand on Riot’s shoulder, and scooped Nimbus up with the other. “But we have to keep the crew together. Getting separated is dangerous. If Mr. Jonah has revived, like he does, he hasn’t been able to find us. I’d like to hope Mr. Hector is alright but to be honest, he probably isn’t. And I don’t think we have the ability to turn around and go a different way here.”
“It’s like a blessing and a curse,” Percy whispered from inside his metal suit, which sat heaped beside Diggory. “We’re still going north, and we can’t go anywhere else.”
“Are you alright, Mort?” Diggory piped up; the red armor glinted a few paces away from the fire, at the edge of the light. “You have been quiet. I am very sorry about your companion.”
“He’ll come back,” Mort said. “He always comes back. Like you and me. We’re dead. But we can still come back.”
“It’s quite possible to kill the undead,” Cindy said, checking a cartridge of silver shells before returning it to her equipment bag. “Silver is one of the most potent deactivating agents we’ve found, but one can also cause significant enough physical damage that the black water can’t make much use of their components.”
“That was a good shot by the way,” Riot coughed. “Taking out the bear. Wish I’d been like, conscious to see it.”
“But that certainly may not apply to a little creature like Bert,” Diggory said. “But regardless, Bert seems to be gone for the moment. Know that we are here to support you, Mort. I am sorry.”
“You’re sure there aren’t any useful memories stored in there, Diggory?” Percy said, and his silver mask of a face tilted towards them, a little silver light in the dark hollows of his eyes. “You wanted to come here so badly, I’m surprised you don’t remember anything about it. I just… I don’t want anyone here to die.”
“Well, between you and I death is not so bad,” Diggory said.
“You really think that?” Percy said in a voice that made Diggory not want to expound.
“I do not remember because this forest did not exist when I was here,” Diggory said. “I remember the ocean. Drifting floes of ice. The heart was on the floor of the sea. I do not know where this forest has come from, or what lives in it now. Only that my intuition leads exactly the way we keep walking, which is north, and that it is my mission to…”
Diggory might have continued talking a while about destiny, but when their gaze turned from Percy’s silver face to the sky, they found it empty and devoid of stars, save one. Perfectly silent, a split skull dripping with viscous black fluid, there was the skull of a great bear, a green eye in one dark socket. It had approached so quietly, contrary to its lumbering nature, that Diggory had hardly noticed it peel out of the shadow of the treeline.
“Hello,” Diggory said. “My name is…”
They did not finish their sentence, as Olivier and Cindy leapt to their feet and Percy withdrew in surprise, because two titanic claws slammed into their legs and their skull, pulverized them into the earth, which would have been alright, except that the bear caught their neck with one black talon and one of their legs with another, and then with a thrash of its arms ripped them in half.
Marketing - Lay To Rest
*sound of a fire in background*
Hello again, it’s your friend and idol Lady Ethel Mallory! Haha.
This beautiful site is the Utah Great Salt Lake Memorial Desert Park. Sometimes you have to make peace with the things you can’t change. Like the climate. You know, back when there was a lake here, people worried so much about what it was supposed to be. The lake is getting smaller. It’s drying up. It’s a bad lake. Are we going to have to rename our capital?
But then they realized. On the other side of every catastrophic change is an opportunity. Why ever think to miss a lake when you could market what an exciting new experience it is to explore a dried lake bed, previously unturned for centuries? Who knows what might have been dropped in here in its watersome times? And so the Great Salt Lake Memorial Desert Park was born, and exists in the Prime Dream today.
It’s dry, and the soil is still crusted with salt in places, odd curving banks and broken mud. Funny that the water levels rose everywhere but here, and created something truly unique.
I’ve got a fire here, going. I’m not worried about being seen. Who would find me? There are little animals, rabbits with horns, bounding across the horizon. It’s sunset, almost night.
Lady Ethel Mallory is a lake. And she’s been there, constant and cool and beautiful for as long as anyone can remember. But now she’s drying up. The sun is hot and the salt clings to her bones and she is never going to be the same. But we do not wallow in the damp soil and say, we want the water back. We look at what we have and we accept that this is all we have left, and we find the best way to use it to keep profits equitable.
It’s time to lay Lady Ethel Mallory to rest.
Here goes one glove, and another, and another, and another. No more pretending that these aren’t my hands.
Here goes my coat. It was only ever a shroud, a veil I could hide behind. It’s all tattered and ruined anyway. Makes me sad. Not anymore.
These are my glasses. They protect my eyes, but I’m done walking during the day anyways. I see far at night. I was meant to be awake then. I don’t hold on to these because of the sun, I hold on to them because they’re iconic, and because I keep hoping that the water will pour back in like floodgates from heaven, and the old Lady Ethel will be back, and I’ll charge these and fall into the Prime Dream like nothing ever happened. I can’t find out who I am while I still carry all the tokens of my past.
Goodbye, Lady Ethel Mallory.
Hello, Lady Ethel Mallory.
Story 2, Continued - A Blessing And A Curse
If you had one redeeming quality, Lady Ethel, it was always your sense of fashion.
Looks like that’s gone.
We return now to Diggory Graves.
A wrinkled hand plunging into frigid water to pull most of a human arm from the sea, frost crawling black across its skin.
Flashes of arcane papers and ancient sigils drawn in blood, binding life beneath cured skin.
Black water dripping down from the roof, drip, dripping into their open eye.
“I had hoped not to return here again,” said Diggory. They sat cross-legged on a beach of white light, an obsidian ocean lapping at its shores.
“Yeah, me neither,” said Evelyn Fry. Her vest was not so different from Diggory’s jacket, but studded with patches and buttons. Her arms were bare, showed off all her tattoos, the same ones that Diggory wore across their skin. Her nose and eyebrows were pierced, but her eyes hollow.
“The last time I was here, I was torn apart by Olivier’s storms,” Diggory said. “Walt assembled me again. He made many stitches. Have they been broken for good this time?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “You’d know more than I would.”
Diggory glanced up to the others; four dark silhouettes watching from the next bank of sand.
“It should have been you all,” Diggory said, and dug their dagger fingertips into the beach. The surface of it was not sand, but hundreds of tiny white bones, mostly fish, not all. “Not me. I have been thinking about this much of late. This was the mission that you and Rizwana and August and Chance and Ruth set out to accomplish. You would have done better than me. I have failed. Again.”
“Dude, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we all died,” said Evie.
“I did gather that,” said Diggory.
“So really, anything you do is an improvement,” she said, and leaned back on her elbows, looked out over the water. “It’s good you came back, anyway. I think you’re ready.”
“Ready for what?” Diggory said. “If you know anything about the demise that you met, what happened to your vessel, what we might face, I do need to know. Although perhaps I should be talking to Rizwana, her stakes in this are unique. I am traveling with Cindy, her wife…”
“It’s weird,” said Evelyn. “How entangled you are in all of our lives. Maybe it makes sense. Maybe that’s the parts of us, finding a way to live on in you. I wouldn’t worry about it, you know. The thing with our lives being over and you not knowing what you’re doing with yours. We didn’t know what we were doing with ours either, and all the things that made us have been pulled apart and put back together into you. You’re on this mission with Rizzie’s wife, sure. But you also traveled across the country to save my favorite woman in the world, and you’re friends with her daughter, who Valerie and I probably would have raised together if I didn’t go on the damn boat. You’re friends with Danielle, who is like, Chance’s first cousin once removed or something. But I say you’re ready because this isn’t all of us.”
Diggory looked up to the silhouettes on the beach, and back down to the keyboard artist. “Barty? I assumed his material all ended up in Mort…”
“Not Barty,” Evie said, and she extended a hand towards the black ocean. Diggory could hear a heartbeat pulsing at the base of their skull. “You’ve always had a great sense of intuition, Diggory. A voice in the back of your head, telling you where to go. It’s time for you to find out why that is.”
“I am afraid to,” Diggory whispered. The ocean seethed against the shoreline.
“That’s cool,” Evelyn said, and laid down on the beach. “You can chill here instead. It’s your life, dude. Do what you want with it.”
Diggory watched her for a moment. She did not stir.
“Valerie is safe,” they said. “She is back at the Scoutpost. She will be alright, no matter how this goes.”
The woman said nothing more. Diggory stood up, and dusted the little bones from their clothes, and walked step by stilted step for the water, until the sea was roiling at their boots, a black and churning miasma, thrumming with an unknown melody.
What is this ocean in my soul, they wondered? What darkness dwells here yet?
And then they stepped forward, into the water, and were taken by the tides.
Interlude 2 - Floodgates
Never again, sayeth the lord, will the earth be flooded and all life upon it destroyed. He did not dream of the possibility that you might do it yourselves. When the heart of Marolmar was plunged into the freezing sea, buried in thousands of feet of solid ice, and perpetual winter crept across the face of your earth, the Industry must have thought no more of it, and opened operations to collect the souls just beginning to form their thoughts and songs. Never again will the water consume the earth, for it shall contain great darkness forevermore.
But humanity has built industries of its own, and they ran hot for a time, undid the seals of ice and epoch, unleashed the floodwaters anew to rise upon your shores and wash away your cities, reveal the blood the gods once spilled. You have been your own undoing, I am afraid. The flood has returned, and the ark is not carried upon the land. It is born in the ocean, two of every unspeakable kind, new life blooming in the black water as your little ship capsizes in the waves and is gone.
Can you feel the sea rocking at the sides of your ship now? Can you feel the storm overhead? Do you hear the song of what grows in the ocean beneath your shallow hull?
We go now to the keepers of an ark.
Story 3 - Two Birds
The Omen circled high over the intangible sphere that enclosed the Blackwood Coven, the ward of their mighty magics that kept the prying eyes of the world at bay. The air was cold, the rush delightful, to stretch one’s wings and peel out of oneself into a few dozen forms spiraling together through the winter air. By now, surely the Director would have turned her gaze elsewhere, and even if she caught a glimpse of the Omen, the Blackwood Coven would remain a mystery to her. Fancy and fun, bird on the run, marvel how the egg hath spun. What a rare treasure to be in the know about something that the Director was not.
As a great unkindness, they flew over the frosted treetops, but it was not the Director who immediately brought them falling out of the air, paralyzed and flightless, to crash down into the frigid meadow. That was a static hum from some kind of big metal device, which was propped up on three black metal legs next to a collection of other bags and devices.
The field was electrifying, burned cold in each of the Omen’s many burning hearts, and it cried out in discomfort.
“Keep it up a bit longer, Mr. Writingdesk,” said the smaller and wirier of two figures. “According to my readings these are no ordinary birds.”
“Do hurry up about it, Mr. Raven,” Mr. Writingdesk said. “I’d hate to give little birds like that any permanent damage.”
“I am no ordinary birds!” the Omen cried. “I am death incarnate. Free me at once or suffer my wrath!”
“I told you at the very beginning,” said Mr. Raven.
“You didn’t mention they were talking ones,” said Mr. Writingdesk.
“Each case of ours finds new ways to surprise and delight,” said Mr. Raven, and came stalking over one precarious step at a time. “What would you say that is, a retainer-class quasidemon? I’ll fetch something appropriate to contain it.”
“No one contains the Omen!” shrieked the Omen, and flapped against the ground with all its wings, but each of its hearts flickered as the grounding device pulsed with sound. “The Omen is a free bird!”
Mr. Raven produced a net of wide silver straps, and in a moment it descended on the Omen like a canopy. It too stung, and the Omen shrunk away from the material as it fell upon them, condensed into one human-shaped form of dark feathers and glistening eyes and sharp talons.
“That’s more like it,” said Mr. Raven, as the net collapsed into a kind of bundle, wrapping the Omen inside. The Omen could not escape the weight of the net, and it was suffocating, stinging, unkind.
“Right,” said Mr. Writingdesk, and the Omen became aware of an eye on the other side of the net, staring in, and a large man kneeling down, head tilting up from rectangular shoulders to reach them. “We’re missing our little girl, see. And I think you know exactly where she is.”
“Your ward cares not for your supervision,” the Omen said. “Begone, and leave them both in peace.”
“Both?” said Mr. Raven, peeking over Mr. Writingdesk’s shoulder. A thin smile spread across his face. “My dear Mr. Writingdesk, it appears we have found a second bird for our stone.”
Outro - Nevermores
Nevermores. It is tempting to move in grand resolutions, to begin and end each chapter of your life with sudden upheaval. Here is where it ends, you say. No longer. This is the end of that habit, that relationship, that line of work. Here is where I draw the line.
And if it feels correct, then good for you. But know that we are not always granted the grace of a clean exit or a stark beginning. You may not be able to run for safety. You may have to walk one step at a time, and you are no less for it. That which is encouraged to flourish over many weeks grows as beautifully as that which sprouts overnight. The greatest commitments may be made of many small changes. One stone at a time, you may shift mountains. Worry not about a dramatic tomorrow, but the smallest gesture towards that future today.
Always perched above your mantle, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting evermore for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Once More' 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!