Content warnings for this episode include: Animal cruelty or animal death (Beast the Bear), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention, Strangulation/suffocation, Static (including sfx), Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Bugs, Body horror
Intro - Cold Mornings
Far from you are the people you have lost and left behind. They live in the world before yours, when there were still cars in the streets and taxes to pay to governments to order the world. And yet, besides the company, what has changed?
You woke in cold mornings then, in small homes with a wood stove, and you wake to cold mornings now, much the same. The songs are different, the toads have become wiser, and the birds stranger in their music, and the insects play melodies you have never heard before. The trees are still dark, a little darker now, but beneath the snow you could hardly tell. Has anything changed at all?
You have changed, you suppose. Those songs play in the deep recesses of your mind, course through your veins. Wisdom has replaced rage, and confidence overcome fear. You leave your wife sleeping in her bed, and rise to set coffee to brew, and hum to a winter that says Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I am beneath a black ocean. A beach of bones cascades down into the depths, forms pillars and catacombs, dead reefs that serve as home to no life. On the ocean floor, three structures are wrought from the deathly materials—a barn, and a delicate mansion, and a rocking chair on its porch. A figure wanders across the yard, uncertain of what they will find, of what lurks in this expanse of nothingness. The theme of tonight’s episode is Wilds.
Story 1 - The Missing Eye
Diggory saw well in the dark, but the ocean was beyond darkness; inky clouds billowed around them as they plummeted down the beach of bones, descended into unknown depths. The sound of a great heartbeat thrummed in the water, reverberated in their stitched skin.
When the steep slope of tumbling skulls and ribs beneath their boots gave way to a flatter plane, they looked up and saw a great shape in the looming darkness, one which they almost recognized. It was an ornate mansion with many hollow windows; a fence of femurs separated it from the rest of the sea floor, and formed a letter ‘M’ in the center of a gate. They had walked away from a similar one the day they first awoke.
“Hello?” they said. “My name is Diggory Graves. Is there someone here?”
“I know your name,” a voice replied. “I should. I gave it to you. Come in.”
They reached out with their sharpened fingers, and pressed open the gate. Two rocking chairs sat on a porch; in one of them, a bent figure sat working on her embroidery.
“Irene Mend,” Diggory said.
“Granny Mend,” she said, and looked up from her embroidery. Her skin was as thin as paper, and one eye was empty as the eye of a needle. “It’s taken you longer than I thought to seek me out.”
“I have not spent much time here lately,” Diggory said, and stepped up the few porch steps, and sat in the chair beside hers. There was a small piece of fabric in a frame in her hands, which she threaded words into. “I have been busy living.”
“Oh I know what you’ve been busy with,” said Granny Mend, and she set down her sewing. Her face was wrinkled but not gentle. “With some minor detours, things have been going quite according to plan.”
“To plan?” Diggory said. The water that hung between them did not interfere with their sound, although it flowed in her frilly clothes and in the flowerless yard beyond. “I am grateful for the chance to meet you. I thought I had, in the Scoutpost. You tucked me in to sleep.”
“I’ve become rather scattered, it seems,” the old woman sniffed. “The piece of me that made it into you was set aside a long time ago for that purpose.”
Here she tapped her empty socket.
“So you have been a part of me, like the rest,” said Diggory. “Why have you waited so long to announce yourself?”
“Like the rest,” she said, and rocked in agitation. “No. I am not just a part of you, Diggory, I am your maker. You are the executor of my will. Unfortunately it appears that I never finished you, but the rain must have gotten in and provided a spark of life in its own way.”
“What is your will?” Diggory said, and put their fingertips together. “I hope I have not strayed too far from it, as you know I am currently trying to complete Rizwana’s mission.”
“It would be impossible for you to stray far. Have you ever wondered where your wonderful sense of intuition comes from?”
Diggory frowned, and the old woman smiled.
“I have been guiding you. As for Rizwana, her mission was never going to succeed. I knew that when I sold her all those secrets. What the Heart was, its location, in exchange for permission to use her and her friends… components, if they met their end. And of course they did.”
“You could have warned them, then,” Diggory said. “About whatever it was that sunk their ship.”
“They would not have known what they were doing if they had reached their destination anyways,” Irene chuckled. “They were going to what, run some diagnostics on the heart of a god? No. This requires a master’s touch.”
“You killed them,” Diggory said. “You condemned them all to die.”
“Nonsense,” Irene said. “I have never killed anyone. Falling grain killed my father, fire killed my mother. I may have set them in motion, but my hands are clean of blood. All the pieces of your fellow craftsmanships were scavenged. That is why they are iterative. Experimental. But for my master work, my final creation, I needed precise instruments. The very best. You were made with so much care, Diggory. You were made to save this world.”
“If I should plunge a man into deep water,” Diggory said, “it is not the lake that drowned him.”
“I’d hope that you’d be somewhat philosophical; I gave you some great minds,” said Granny Mend. “Even so, you should take better care of yourself. The work these others do on our body is very clumsy. It will all have to be taken out and restitched.”
Diggory glanced down at their palms; Walt’s stitches did not strike them as unsightly, even if they were not so neat as their original patterns.
“You thought Rizwana’s mission to be fruitless,” Diggory said. “So what is all of this for? A waste? What did you make me to do?”
“Something that Rizwana could never have dreamed of,” Irene said, and folded her hands in her lap satisfactorily. “The Heart will not be damaged. It will not be broken. It is foolish to think it could be. But it is full of power, regenerative, life-giving power. You are the only thing that can stop it. You will place your hands upon its surface, and all the spells I have written inside of your skin will activate, and they will revive me. Immortally, this time.”
“You believe the heart can form you a new body?” Diggory said.
“I have made the new body myself,” said Irene, and gestured to them with a frail little hand. “A beautiful work at that. You should be very proud. Of all my creations, you are the one who is most important. You are the one who is going to bring your maker back.”
“We would share the same body, then?” Diggory said, resisted the urge to rise.
“Oh. Let me be clear. You are a byproduct, Diggory,” she said, and reached out, put a hand on their knee. “I know that must be hard to hear. I do love you, as I love everything I create. I gave you a name. I made you clothing. I built you out of the very best pieces one could find. But you were empty when you were born, and unfortunately you will be empty when your purpose is complete. It’s quaint that you’ve developed… a bit of a personality, along the way. But when you place your hands upon the Heart of the Garden, Diggory Graves will cease to be.”
“What about my friends?” Diggory said, and shifted away; Irene withdrew her hand. “About Percy? I have a home at the Scoutpost, I cannot go...”
“You think you love them, don’t you?” said Irene, and glanced around to the dark ocean beyond. “I made you for a specific purpose, to steal the power of the Heart and channel it. Only you can empty that desolate shell and stop it from hurting anyone else again. The changing of the age will be stayed. If you love them, if you really love them, then you will give them a chance to live. No matter what it costs you.”
“I am my own person,” Diggory whispered. “That is what Rizwana said, that is what I have learned. I am. I am.”
“Surely you did not think that you could escape all the little ugly pieces you are made of?” Irene said, brow furrowed. “I am glad you have gotten to see the world, Diggory. To make friends. To try your best at what you must imagine love to be. Because now you know exactly what you are sacrificing for. Now you know why they must be protected.”
Diggory sat for a long moment, rested their head in their hands. Somewhere in this false mansion, they knew, was a false table where they had stared up at the ceiling, slowly gained awareness of the rain dripping into their eye. Where they had first sat up, and found a pair of boots and torn black pants and a spiked leather jacket sitting on a chair by the bedside; one with a little embroidered tag that said ‘Property of Diggory Graves’.
“I understand,” Diggory said, and wept black tears into a black ocean. “Please, when I am gone, tell them what happened. Tell them that I care. That there was no other way.”
“I will,” said Irene, and picked up her sewing again, began to pluck away. It was a tag for a piece of clothing; golden stitches read ‘Property of Granny Mend’. “I will make sure they remember you always.”
Interlude 1 - Songs You Cannot Hear
I can almost hear it, when I am quiet. There is song in these woods always, poetry inscribed on each sheaf of bark, and it is loudest in the Northmost Woods. The world beyond these pines is stained black, grows darker each year as your planet sinks into a new age of rot and rebirth. But here, it is steeped, drowned in blood that shines in a thousand iridescent colors, just outside your range of vision.
Colors you cannot see, songs you cannot hear. The Northmost Woods were not meant for you. They were meant for me, and I treasure them. Each Watching Tree is a reminder that although I questioned it sometimes, some part of me was impressed deep in his mind. And whatever fragment of his creativity and art defines this place, gives rise to new changes born out of changes born out of changes, that I mattered. That he cared.
It is a forest in memorial, a wilderness as untamed as its master, and it will never bow to any conqueror.
We go now to one who thinks herself a conqueror.
Story 2 - A Final Stitch
Cindy remembered, through hazy eyes, laying her head to rest in her wife’s lap, being cradled a long moment, her chin caressed before she was tucked properly into bed. She had not known it was the last such moment she would ever get together. Apparently, the security detail outside their home did not know either, and most of Rizwana’s cabinet members were similarly left in the dark. When she left for her expedition, she left behind the world, and Cindy with it.
Cindy held her wife’s head in her lap, and threaded a last stitch through her forehead. It was not Rizwana, really, and it had not been her in a long time. But there was the shape of her lips, the stretches of her smile that were familiar, lost in Diggory’s patchwork of souls and skins. She tied off the thread from the surgical kit, and glanced behind her. The suit that contained the bones of Bartholomew Chum was sitting with his back turned to her, staring deeper into the cave. She lowered her head discreetly to Diggory’s, and rested her forehead against them for a moment.
“Please,” she whispered. “I don’t believe in magic. I don’t know how you walk. But please, if there’s any life in there, come back. We need you.”
“Cindy?” said Mort from the back of the tunnel. “I heard the sound again.”
“Which sound?” Cindy said. She could hear the bear well enough, trampling across the forest floor above them; dirt hissed and crumbled from the stone ceiling. “The bear? Our crew members?”
“It sounds like the wind,” said Mort. “But it’s not.”
“It might be bats,” she said, looked into the shadow beyond Mort. His emerald flame eyes provided the only source of illumination back there. “Try to keep your voice down.”
“I don’t think it’s bats,” Mort whispered.
Cindy looked back down at the corpse in her lap, and found that Diggory’s eyes were wide open.
“Diggory,” she said, and touched their wrist before remembering that a pulse was unlikely. “Diggory, are you alright?”
“Yes,” Diggory said, and sat up, examined the long stitches across their midsection, breathed out dust. They looked up to her. “You repaired me?”
“I couldn’t just let you die, again,” Cindy said, and shifted away from Diggory, began packing up her supplies. “You’re lucky it didn’t eat you whole. Would have made this all much more difficult.”
“Hi Diggory,” Mort said, and waved with his claw from the back of the cave.
“I don’t understand,” Diggory said. “What is going on? Where is everyone else?”
“Well, mister Mendoza is still missing in action,” Cindy said, shoving her suture kit into a supply crate, one of several that she’d managed to get Mort to salvage before he lost a fight with the bear. “The bear returned, attacked in the middle of the night. It tore you into two, nearly three pieces, and we scattered. I’m not sure where your friends are. Mort and I found our way down here, to a cave in this ravine. The bear is still up above, looking for us. It hasn’t given up in sixteen hours. I hope that while it’s distracted with us, the others can get to safety.”
“It was unwise to spend this time repairing me rather than running from the beast,” Diggory said.
“It’s nothing I wouldn’t do for anyone else,” Cindy said hurriedly, and stood up. “Make the effort worth my while.”
“You were quite neat with the stitches,” Diggory said. The revenant kept looking at their palms. “Thank you.”
“I wasn’t allowed to try,” said Mort. “But I helped with my watching the cave. I’m very happy you’re okay. I thought I lost a friend.”
“Good job, Mort,” Diggory said. “And thank you. I was worried I had too.”
“Alright,” said Cindy, and shouldered the bag with her rifle, looked up to Diggory and Mort alike. “There’s a beast up there that can tear us apart with a swipe. It’s nothing we didn’t see coming; only it refuses to stay down for long. That’s something I intend to fix, permanently. And I need you two to help.”
“What can we do?” Diggory said. “We have tried so much by now.”
“I was hoping to save these, but I think this has become desperate,” Cindy said, and tapped one of her crates. “I brought enough explosives to clear a half-mile of forest. Let’s see if we can’t solve our wildlife problem once and for all.”
Marketing - Something Big
What kind of a name for a town is Deadwood? It seems to be anything but. You can barely tell there was a town here at all, for all the forest. These trees remind me of the place up North where my friend lives. But it has me reflecting on everywhere that I’ve been. I wasn’t always a famous influencer and celebrity figure, you see. When I was younger, I was only a…
*static cuts in*
Hello. My name is Dashiell Spade, and I’m one of the leaders for a group you probably know as the Stonemaids. I don’t have much time. Right now I’m hiding in the walls of Box Cassiopeia with a bundle of stolen equipment; when Lady Ethel left, security was in shambles and I managed to break out of the conference room they were keeping me in. But they know I’m here. It’s only a matter of time.
Cindy, if you can hear me out there, no matter what happens, keep up the fight. Our people are going to move mountains. We’re going to win this war of attrition. We’re going to walk out and see the sunlight again. Don’t forget my daughter, alright? It’s her I’m trying to build this world for.
Oswald is working on something big. I’m not sure exactly what, but I keep tapping in to resource requests for Box Betelgeuse. The Botulus Corporation is taking action they haven’t taken in years. Channeling designers and think tanks and engineers. I don’t know what this means for us. If Oswald thinks he can take off in a rocket and ignore the problems in his company, or if he’s working on something else. If we’re in danger.
I can hear them coming up from the maintenance shaft… remember, we are not free until we’re allowed to wake up. Don’t stop…
*metallic clanging grows louder, static and the recording cuts out*
Story 2, Continued - A Final Stitch
Now you know how it feels, Lady Ethel. Now you know how it feels.
We return now to Cindy Lockheart.
Just a little further, Cindy thought, watched through the scope of her silver rifle.
“Cindy, are you sure you do not want to save these for your original purpose?” Diggory whispered. “If you use them now, what will you use to destroy the Heart?”
“I’ve got one crate left,” Cindy said through gritted teeth. “And if it doesn’t work, we’ll improvise. But we are not going to make it much further with that beast on our tail.”
Through her scope, she could see Mort turn from where he deposited the crate; the trees were already shaking just beyond him. He turned and gave her a thumbs up, just as a broad pale skull split through the trees, a single green eye burning in a dark socket. The bear roared, and Mort turned away, began to flee.
Clawed paws as heavy as armored cars beat down into the underbrush as the bear launched itself after Mort, barrelled down on him like a thunderstorm. It swung with a claw that had already punctured Mort’s armor once; Mort rolled away from it, by plan or accident she could not tell, and went diving for the entrance to their underground burrow.
The bear looked around, and then up at her, oblivious of the crates tucked in the underbrush around its feet.
That’s right, she thought. See me. You’re part of this place and you took my wife away from me. Allow me to return the favor.
She pulled the trigger, and the spark was a glint of silver through her scope, and then she dropped to the ground and covered her ears as a shock of black earth flew past her; trees waved and snapped, a cataclysmic howl of flame leapt into the pine-tops. She looked up to find Diggory half sheltering her with their arm, and scanned the whirlwind of fire and light for the bear, smoke and roiling flame streaking up past the treetops and into the empty sky, a signal that she hoped would bring her crew mates back together.
“Cindy?” Diggory whispered, and pointed with a dagger-edged finger. “Look.”
She would almost have mistaken it for a charred tree at first, so thin and blackened were its bones. But one skeletal step at a time, the husk of the bear stepped through the flames towards her, fire pouring from its bones, curling in waves around its great toothy skull, a single green point of light shining in the inferno.
And then Mort was running past it through the blaze in a screaming panic, and its skull swiveled after him as he dashed with all the speed and grace of a diesel train.
“Cindy!” Mort called. “It wasn’t bats!”
What happened next was difficult for her to process—something invisible, or nearly invisible, struck the bear. Like a large pane of glass had collided with its head. But it happened a second time, and a third; pointed shapes that warped the light of the fire between them. And with each slice, something was missing from the bear; the corner of a cheekbone, a canine, a chip of its bone shoulder. A storm of invisible daggers rose like the wind in the clearing beyond her, shuddered and twisted in the air like a murmuration of starlings.
“Is everyone okay?” said a voice, and Cindy looked behind her to find Olivier touching down. They had donned their cloak of clouds again, and brought a bloodstained Riot and a mud-blackened Percy behind them. Mort came tromping up through the forest on her other side.
“The smoke signal was good,” Riot said, and wiped at the blood on her forehead but only smeared it further. “But what the heck did you do?”
Cindy looked back; the clearing was a prism now, a thousand fractals of light orbiting around the bear, and taking with it one chip after another of its essence, until the warping storm—whether it was weather or creature, she did not know—lifted, and gusted away into the trees, taking reflections of treetops and emerald stars with it.
What was left of the bear was a jagged sculpture, blacked bones hacked into odd geometrical carvings, a monument to desolation. Cindy looked behind her to find Percy with his silver arms wrapped around Diggory; his mechanical face did not seem to be working entirely right. But as Riot and Olivier and Mort gathered around them, Cindy did not join the circle, nor did she celebrate.
She kept her gaze focused on the far end of the clearing, and could just see through the trees a tall pale shape, wreathed antlers stretching out, no face, a hundred hands descending into the forest underbrush.
“Run,” Cindy said. “Everyone? Run.”
Whatever the Faceless King said, she could not understand it, because it was a shriek that filled the ember-ridden skies of the forest and bled in her ears, and it raised a hand, and the bear was reborn again.
Interlude 2 - A Day Without Mourning
What am I doing? I wonder this every so often, dreamer. Not just because Xyzikxyz implores me to get a better hobby, although I cannot blame her for her concern. It is surely not coincidence that I linger here, in these woods. These trees, and the people that dwell within them, those that drink of the black rains and those that sleep beneath the waters, the life changing and transforming… I cling to it. Just as I clung to Marolmar, Garden of the End, when he still lived.
He would ask me for space, and I was loathe to provide it. His presence was meaning, for around him I did not have to be a runaway from the Council of Heavens, or a useless watcher. I could just be someone who was loved. Who was a companion for a great and talented creator.
And then he was gone, and my universe with him. And only emptiness remained. A feeling of being alive but with no reason for it. I sought distraction anywhere I could, but that anywhere was always close. Always on this world where his blood fell upon the earth.
And I wonder now, is it healthy? I have good reason to share these stories with you, to continue this narrative in your nightmares. But I have lingered in these woods so long, and it will never bring him back. Perhaps, if they succeed, Diggory and Mort and Riot and the others in their mission, it will be good for this forest to slowly disappear. And I can lay my final memories of him to rest. What happens then, I wonder? Who is a Nikignik that mourns no longer? I am curious, someday, to find out.
But that day is not here yet.
We go now to one who mourns the past.
Story 3 - Welcome To The Wastes
“I’m so glad you’re alright,” Percy whispered. “I was so worried. I tried to follow Cindy, but Riot was getting chased and I had to…”
“It is alright,” Diggory said. “Cindy repaired me. I was concerned I would not see you again.”
“You’ll always see me again,” Percy said, and pulled back from Diggory’s face a little, admired the new stitches. There they were, in neat black rows. His partner became a little more embroidered each adventure they had.
“Did you see anything?” Percy whispered. “From your… old selves? You mentioned that happens sometimes. Did Rizwana have anything to say?”
“She… did not,” Diggory said. “I saw nothing. Only darkness.”
“Weird,” Percy said. “Maybe that’s a good sign. That they’re… I don’t know. Integrating? Resting a little easier. Letting you be you.”
“Right,” Diggory said, and nodded. “Probably that.”
The tone struck Percy as a little odd, but he pressed his silver mask to Diggory’s face again, only looked up when Cindy began screaming to run.
“How is that thing not dead,” he said.
“I don’t know,” Riot said from behind him, and began dashing through the woods, Olivier and Mort following close behind her, thumping through the black earth with haste. “But let’s not split up this time!”
The bear was reforming in real time, its bone sprouting new shards, black moss from within growing to cover its shattered ribs, a mane of wet grass blooming around its skull. Behind it, like a wizard in some satanic game book, was the Faceless King, hands outstretched over the flame and the bear.
Cindy and the others grunted as the Faceless King shrieked again, all the little slits in its neck opening up like gills, but Percy was unbothered by the high frequency, and Diggory seemed likewise unscathed. And when Diggory ran, Percy ran after him.
There was light ahead, he was sure, glinting through the trees. Were they getting close, after all this time? Eventually you had to reach North, he thought, wherever it was now. He leaped through the curling purple underbrush and ducked beneath the oily pine needles, followed as near as he could after Diggory’s spiky jacket weaving through the trees.
A sound like thunder rolling over the Alabama plains. The bear was on its feet again; the murmuration hadn’t finished the job, or the Faceless King kept restoring the beast, one of the two. What could you do against a predator that could not be stopped, he wondered?
What had they had to do against his dad?
And then Percy plummeted down a steep muddy bank, and fell after Diggory into an expanse of white like heavenly clouds.
Or white like snow, specifically. The others ahead of him picked themselves up from the fall; Mort and Riot and Olivier, who had landed more gracefully. Diggory rose and helped him up with a sharp-tipped hand.
“Keep running,” Cindy said, and did not so much as stop to take in her surroundings before diving onwards. Percy looked behind them. The forest, in a great heap of stone and overgrown roots, ended. A beach of cold rock and entangled bones descended into a great ice sheet, and it stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction, black ice beneath an emerald sky.
“What is this place?” Percy whispered. “There’s ice? I thought global warming took care of that.”
“We are getting close,” Diggory whispered. “Now, we must run.”
Diggory took off on stiltlike legs after the rest of the group, and Percy followed close behind, silver feet scratching against the ice beneath. How thick is the ice, he wondered? Thick enough to hold up Mort? He looked behind as Riot screamed, and saw the hulking shape of the bear peel out of the wood, come scrambling over the ice fifty feet behind them.
“Diggory,” Percy said, “we can’t keep doing this. It won’t give up.”
“Then,” Diggory said, and turned to face the bear, let Riot and the rest continue on ahead. “Let us buy them a little time.”
“Right,” Percy said, and looked over, took Diggory’s hand, gave it a little squeeze. “I love you.”
“I…” Diggory began, but they were cut short by a sight in the distance.
There was a rumble. Not of thunder this time, not of the bear’s great trampling paws as it roared and bellowed across the ice, but an earthquake, a shudder in the world from deep below.
And then the bear, in the middle of one great leap, was gone with a crack. The ice beneath it buckled and flew into pieces, and from the deep waters below rose a great black obelisk or tentacle or pseudopod, an arm of the ocean itself, and it engulfed the bear entirely, and pulled it into the depths below the ice. Flumes of frost shot up in its wake.
“Diggory?” Percy said, and looked down at his feet. The ice was not black, he realized; there was squirming life beneath its surface, an expanse of living ichorous flesh in every direction. He looked up to Diggory, who was as pale as he had ever seen them. “What just happened?”
“We are in a new territory,” Diggory whispered, backing away from the great hole in the ice, and turning towards the rest of the crew. “It appears it has its own guardian. One that I… that parts of me… have met before.”
Percy looked down at his feet again, but the wriggling wormlike shapes beneath the ice sheet had shifted to look like letters, spelled a word in cursive over and over again, from beneath his feet out to the horizon.
‘Creep’, it said.
“What does it want?” Percy whispered.
“I believe,” Diggory said, “it wants us to die.”
‘Die’, agreed the words beneath the ice. Percy reached out and grabbed Diggory’s hand as they ran, and then the blanket of ice on the surface of the ocean came to life, and the horizon shattered in every direction.
Outro - Wilds
Wilds. Do you fear what lies beyond the carefully constructed artifice of your life, dreamer? Or do you treasure it? Is it out in the untamed regions of your world that you are reminded how transitory the scope of your problems are? Or do you wish to remain blissfully unaware of the world outside, deal with the little problems of electricity and resource and function without the frightening unknown creeping in?
Your world has become a wilderness, and you would have to strive now to ignore it. Trees reclaim ancient concrete with their roots, and ivies grow to entangle the most unsightly of structures, rich fields replace the manicured lots of grass held a generation ago.
And in this wilderness, you must choose what you wish for your life. It is a choice I do not envy you, dreamer, but one you may make freely.
Walking for now in these forlorn pines, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting untamed for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'The Peaks' 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!