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HFTH - Episode 121 - Cups

Content warnings for this episode include: Kidnapping and abduction, Animal Death (Dogsmell as usual), Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Teeth, Character death

Intro - Another Drop

It is only when you can see the bottom of the cup that you realize you have drunk it dry. You only get one, and there are no refills, no reorders. You were given your ration, as everyone else is, and it is already gone.

And yet your lips are parched, your throat burns for just a little more, another drop. It is unfair that this is all there is and it was gone too soon, barely a cool memory. It is injustice, but it is the injustice of every cup, every life, and there is always an ending where things run dry. If only there was another way…

But there is. And the rain that fills your glass is a miracle, a blessing, a black fount of life everlasting, and it fills your cup and overflows, wets your lips that you may sing Hello From The Hallowoods.


Right now, I lurk underneath the floorboards. There is only a small foil parcel for company. But then there is light, as the floorboard is pulled up, and a cackling woman with a hammer reaches in through the beams of sunlight for a treasure long hidden. The theme of tonight’s episode is Cups.

Story 1 - Happy Anniversary

Violet Keene was a planner. It could be said that her wife Bern was as well, but they planned in different ways. Bern planned for things that mattered, ran the mathematics of survival, oversaw the fragile economy of their world with skill that still took Violet by surprise. Bern had even mentioned once that she might pursue a diagnosis for autism, but Bern did not trust any healthcare provider who was white, and hated being interrogated, and then the world had ended and put a pin in that.

The things that Violet planned for were little. Socks knit months in advance, jars of jams saved over long winters. If Bern made them a home, Violet would fill it with books and art. If Bern made them a garden, Violet would fill it with flowers. And if Bern loved her, Violet would make sure she knew it in a thousand little ways. And so she chuckled to herself as she pried up the floorboard and retrieved her buried prize.

Then the door flew open, and she shrieked, and hid the package behind her back.

Bern paused in the door, halfway through removing her yellow hat.

“Hey now. What’d that floor ever do to you?” she said.

“It’s. Ah. I didn’t hear you coming,” Violet muttered. “The board was a bit creaky. Probably on account of the walls growing bark. I thought I’d do a little fixing upping.”

“You could have just asked me,” Bern said, and stepped across their room. Violet scooted away from the scene of the crime, and winced as the movement sent pangs through her wounded leg.

“It’s just, I know you’re very busy lately,” Violet said, and waved Bern off with her other hand. “I don’t want to add one more thing to your day.”

“I’m never too busy to help if you need something,” Bern said, and came to stand beside the lifted floorboard. “Here. Give me the hammer.”

Violet held the bag behind her with one hand, and handed Bern the hammer with the other, and watched as her wife knelt, short fluff of hair illuminated like a halo by the sunlight, an angel wreathed in sawdust. Violet loved the way those dark tan muscles still rippled beneath her turned up polo sleeves, brought the hammer down with a sharp focus and consternating precision.

Violet was so enthralled, in fact, that she dropped the bag, which hit the floor with a crackle.

“Oh good,” Bern mused. “You found more coffee.”

Violet’s heart broke quietly.

“I… yes,” she said.

“That’s good,” Bern said, testing the weight of her knee on the board. It did not creak. “Cookery said we’d run out, they’ll be happy for it at the kitchens. Haven’t been able to pay dry market prices for it lately.”

“It’s not for the cafeteria,” Violet said, or it escaped her, really. “It’s… ugh. I was going to make it the way you like it, and surprise you with it. But I suppose there’s no point in hiding it now. Happy anniversary.”

Bern’s eyes narrowed, and she looked at the floor.

“Wait, is it our anniversary today? I’m so sorry, I thought it was… wait. It’s December.”


“Our anniversary is in June.”

“We started dating in December,” Violet said, and sat back against the bed in defeat, took the weight off her legs. “Are you thinking of the Scoutpost founding celebration?”

“No,” said Bern. “We met in June. At the camp. June sixteenth.”

“Anniversary is from when you start dating,” Violet sighed, and turned the foil bag of coffee beans over in her hands.

“Well it should be from when we met,” Bern said, and sat down against the bed beside her, and sawdust went flying. “Because I loved you the moment I first saw you.”

Violet shook her head, and brushed a tear from her eye, and kissed her wife deeply for a moment, put a hand against her chest.

“We’ve had a discussion like this every year for almost forty-five years,” she whispered.

“Probably will again, same day next year,” said Bern.

“This is the good stuff, you know,” Violet said, and passed her wife the little package of coffee. “Not like those foil bags they raid from Tims suppliers and sell at the dry market. This is a Montreal blend. For months, I’ve been saving that.”

“That can’t have come cheap,” Bern sighed. “We’re barely getting by this winter, and you’re spending on a bag of coffee…”

“I was trying to say that I love you,” Violet said, and looked down at the fixed floorboard. “Yes. Things have been terrible lately. Between the Fort Freedom invasion and the Froglins and running out of all our good foods and our home is a tree now and the news from Danielle and we’ve sent our children North to some godawful fate and…”

Bern put an arm over her, and pulled her close to quiet her. She put her forehead against Bern’s hairy chin and closed her eyes.

“And I just wanted you to have something nice,” she whispered. “Just one thing that’s all for you. You give everything to this community. You deserve something yours, for once.”

“I already have something that’s all mine,” Bern smiled, and Violet lost herself in another warm kiss, and she felt Bern’s hand trace her back. She put her hand on Bern’s neck.

“I don’t count,” she giggled.

“Of course you do,” Bern said, and touched her nose to Violet’s. “This place isn’t just a community. It’s my family. It’s my home. I would like drinking this coffee. But I would like even better to share it with the people I care about.”

She kissed Violet’s nose.

“You had better get at least a cup,” Violet grumbled.

“I will,” Bern said. They sat peacefully together, holding the beans. The sun beamed in through the little windows. The wind outside creaked in the Scoutpost timbers, but not in their floor.

“We should get up sometime,” Violet said.

“What’s the hurry?” Bern whispered, and took Violet’s hand in hers, and kissed it. “We could stay down here forever.”

Interlude 1 - Fountain of Youth

Long hath your kind dreamt of the fountain of youth, where you might kneel in the waters of immortality and sip of time itself. Would you be strong enough, dreamer, if you could?

Tempting, a body that would never crumble, a mind that would not decay. To always have skin that glows and eyes that see brightly. To trap the ash of life in a crystal bubble, let it drift pristine for eternity.

Would you be strong enough?

To love each friend as you lose them one after the other? To find a purpose when generations fall to dust around you? To adapt your spirit as each century brings impossible changes to your way of life? And when you have lost a hundred, a thousand loves, would you be strong enough to choose to love once more?

I am not sure I am. But gratefully, I will not live forever. Only to the end of the universe, where all gods die. We go now to one who fights the future.

Story 2 - The Cure

The Director raised her hand, and Clara whistled, summoned her phantom hound from across the boundless shadow to join her in the Director’s office. The two who had just arrived in the office held weapons, and she knew what Scoutpost folk were capable of.

“Where is Al?” said a woman with a frizz of grey hair, and she pointed her shotgun at the Director, glanced around the room frantically. “Al? Grandma Zelda is here for you!”

Dogsmell arrived in a crackle of static, and growled with a low thunder, and the Director frowned as the woman with the shotgun and the silver-haired man with the javelin approached.

“No closer,” Clara said to the strangers, and the spectral dog swirled at her heels, teeth bristling with light.

“Please,” said the Director, and raised one pallid hand. “Leave us.”

“We aren’t going anywhere,” said Zelda.

“Now easy there,” said the silver-haired stranger behind her, and he laid a hand on her shoulder. “No need to shoot anybody. We’re just here for a few missing kids of ours, and then we’ll be happy to be on our way…”

“You heard the Director,” Clara said, glaring at them both. “Leave.”

“I was talking to you, Clara,” said the Director, and she slid the manila folder with her name on it across the desk. “You will find your mission in here. It begins immediately. And I do mean immediately.”

“Hey, I’m talking to you,” Zelda shouted.

Clara thought about asking if the Director was sure that she wanted to be left alone with these two violent fossils, but then again, it was the intruders who should have known better than to barge into the office of the most powerful witch in Downing Hill. The Director could manage herself much better than the Instrumentalist had.

“I understand,” Clara said, and whistled again; Dogsmell turned from the strangers, and followed her out of the office, through the vortex of shadow into the library above. She acknowledged no one, and did not stop moving until she had summoned her broom and her compact bow and a heavy coat, and she sailed into the sky over Downing Hill. She circled around to land on the top platform, a small balcony perched above the domed roof, where she and Friday had once stargazed. The sky was grey and cold, and the black ocean of forest beyond capped with snow.

There was no Friday now, but that was the difference between them. Friday was afraid of her power, did everything she could to avoid confronting it, had fought everything Downing Hill had ever tried to do for her. But Clara understood that power wasn’t a trophy to be gained; it was something to be stockpiled at all costs. Because when life became a cataclysm, only power would help you weather it. Power bought safety. Power bought peace. And, if she was lucky, it could buy you a home.

The contents of the mission were complex, and to say that it was important would be an understatement. It was the first step of the Director’s plan for all of them, for the world itself. As much as it was an honor to be entrusted with it, she had the sense that she was not the Director’s only pawn. In several places throughout the text, details had been missed. Olivier’s name was still printed in one or two paragraphs, and she frowned, steeled her jaw. You will not need another protege, she thought. I will be the last.

But something beyond the pines tortured her. Years she had spent plunging through layer after convoluted layer of the Compact. What if she was not good enough yet? What if she flew out into the northern winds and did not return, and left her parents trapped in their shells of twisted flesh forever? The Director had mentioned it would be dangerous to try and save them alone, but Clara knew the Director well by now. She wants to see my secrets, Clara thought. She wants to take them and mold them like she has molded me. She wants what I know more than anything else in the world.

And that, Clara thought, is power.

She raced on her broomstick across the blanket of dark trees, and the snowflakes whirled around her like stars, turned the world white. It did not matter. She knew by heart the course she had to take. Finally, the obsidian spines parted to reveal the Northern Artery, the single paved road in the Hallowoods, a product of the ill-fated mining industry, that ran like a vein through the heart of the forest. And if you followed it long enough, there was a branch, and another, and another…

Until a winding road labeled Coldwater Drive brought you to a gothic mansion that loomed in the trees, where a twisted iron fence enclosed an overgrown lawn. Dogsmell kept close to her broom as she glided over the Rathbone house, and the ghostly hound looked up to her with inkwell eyes, whimpered with a sound like a steel spike on ice.

“Don’t worry, girl,” she said. “Look. This is your old doghouse.”

She descended through the snow, and breathed long and deep, clenched her fists tight around the handle, banished fear from her mind. Today, she thought. Today is the day I get my parents back.

Marketing - Outfit Check

Lady Ethel:

Outfit check! You know I burned all my old things, but a lady can’t strut around in a fur and a smile. So I’ve been scrounging for some new apparel in… whatever city I’m in. It’s no Kiki Flowers, but it’s not half bad for the circumstances. And I made it myself. God. It reminds me of going out to the thrift store and looking for clothes to resell online.

My new dress is made of a large tarp. It seems to be mildly water resistant. I’ve also found myself a kind of poncho, to keep the sun off my skin during the day. I’m sensitive.

And a proper purse, because my old bags were falling apart. It’s really a duffel bag. I’ve found some tchotchkes to carry in it. Someone’s photo album, although I’ve taken out all their idiotic pictures. I’m replacing them with pictures of me that I find as I go. Because at this point, I am my only family. And a canister for rain water. I’m hoping I can control my intake a little and avoid these mood swings.

And I have goggles. I got goggles. I think they say ‘adventure’ more than ‘Lady Ethel Mallory has sensitive eyes’ but I haven’t made up my mind. Between that and the hood I should be alright for some walks. It’s been frigid during the nights lately, but as much as I’d like to cozy up somewhere for the winter, I’m going to press on. Self-improvement doesn’t sleep, and neither does Lady Ethel Mallory…

Story 2, Continued - The Cure

The exterior finally matches the interior. Both a pile of garbage.

We return now to Clara Martin.

The Rathbone property had not become more beautiful in her absence. The little doghouse on the edge of the yard had succumbed to rot, and whatever shapes the topiary might once have held, they had become formless, dark towers. And there was her childhood home with all its sunken roofs and gloomy windows, a tiny library full of books, her bedroom in the top window. Snow filled the tracks that Riot’s RV had carved in her front drive.

Clara hovered in the falling snow until the frost crept on her glasses, and made no sound. She only repeated the words in her head, a rhythmic meditation.

Voss nen xorn syrensyr, om nen xorn sysrensyr.

Upon thee I call, flame-father, soul-forger, master of the sacred fire of life. Burn away the evil that bleeds in the veins of my mother. Render to ash the sickness that dwells in the heart of my father. Restore them as cleansing the rust from armor, the blood from a weapon. Restore them and make them whole.

Make me whole.

She opened her eyes, and although she had not dared mutter a word, already they had found her. A fell shape stood in the iron gateway, a mound of wicked black claws pulled by jagged legs, so much larger than the last time she had seen it. From the window of the bedroom extended writhing shapes like the graspers of a mollusc, each laced with many-toothed maws, blooming out like a flower towards her.

“Hi mom,” she said to the monster in the window, and glanced up to the one in the gate, which watched her with no visible eyes. “Hi dad.”

They answered her, and she could almost hear their old voices in their tortured screams. Don’t worry, she thought, and descended first to the window. Her mother seemed to take up the whole room, and Clara hovered close to the long tentacles that waved from the windowframe, white teeth churning in a hundred tiny mouths. Don’t worry, she thought, and lowered her hand to her mother’s squirming skin. This will all be over soon.

“Om nen xorn syrensyr,” Clara said, and a jolt of pain ran through her body, but after the years of losing limbs in the torturous maze of the Compact, she did not flinch, let it run through her body and out of her feet. It was fire, searing fire, that burned in her eyes and pooled through her skin to light her fingertips aglow with white-hot flame.

“Voss nen xorn syrensyr,” she whispered, and touched the shuddering mass of shadow that was once, was still, would always be her mother. The breath was drawn out of her as if by an electric current, and she could not release her palm from the toothy surface, was sucked in through the window frame and off her broom as the mass retracted. Light pulsed through her hand and poured out like flame, burnt the dead skin away like ash, and the fire of souls was so bright that she could scarcely watch.

And yet she did watch, as her hand burned through each layer of false skin and churning maw, until the last teeth crept back into their proper places, and she stood by her mother’s bed, her hand on the shoulder of an emaciated woman tangled in the bedsheets, whose eyes were dark and glistened in the flame, who looked up to her with blessed recognition.

“Mom?” she whispered.

Zora Martin smiled, and raised her hand to touch Clara’s, and opened her mouth to speak. Whatever she wanted to say, however, remained unsaid. Her hand broke into small stones, like a log cracking in the heat of the hearth, and her arm dissolved into fragments, and her face, and the bones of her mother became a pile of ash in the four-poster bed, and Clara screamed a scream that only her weeping hound could hear.

Interlude 2 - Bloodsong

Your blood is a song, dreamer. And I, in all places, hear not just one heartbeat, not only one breath, but the symphony in all its perfection.

It grows darker in your veins with each draught of water. There might have been a choice, once, to avoid contamination or not. But now it is all the same. River or rain, well or fountain, ice or snow, ocean or cistern. All sing the melody of creation, and now, so do you.

I wonder, sometimes, if that is why I have grown so fond of this little world. I know by who it has been written. But then again, when I first came to know a human, there was no poison in your water yet. And when I first came to love a human, it was only the smallest traces beginning to bleed into your world.

It is a symphony now, that is made of every living thing. And as much as you may wish to end its music, to restore these instruments to their old kinds, I do not know if that can be.

We go now to one who drinks deeply of the future.

Story 3 - Tea and Power

Winona remembered now why she had kept that Elena girl around. Because they were Friends of Zelda on a mission to find women who went missing in the Hallowoods, yes. Because Elena could drive and Winona’s eyesight was going, certainly. But mostly because Elena spent most of her time moving pianos and cabinets and bulky furniture for her father’s business, and she could have helped Winona move from her cabin to her van in a few hours. Where was the daughter of a junk collector when you needed her?

“Hold still,” she said, and dragged her good chair across the floor, and tripped over Tivali, who enjoyed standing exactly where she couldn’t be seen. The cabin rumbled and shook.

“I said hold still,” she said, and looked sharply at the ceiling. She knew the night-gaunt beyond it could hear her, with those gigantic ears. “I know you’re impatient to get this heavy cottage off your back, but I’m not leaving my good chair behind. That’s coming in the van.”

There was a pounding at her door, and she wheeled around. “Al’ama,” she breathed. “What is it now?”

She set down her little chair and brushed Tivali out of the way a second time, and placed a hand on the ever-present pommel of her khopesh.

“Voss nen xorn nikignik, om nen xorn nikignik,” she whispered.

You awful old crow. Destroy that blade before you grow ancient and forgetful.

She saw a face she recognized on the other side of the door, and she stepped over quickly, pulled it open in a heartbeat.

A girl stood on the deck of her cabin, tears dripping down her face, clutching her broom.

“Clara?” Winona said. “What is…”

“I think I just killed my mom,” Clara sobbed.

Winona pursed her lips. That sounded like a problem that no cup of tea could solve. It was three cups, in fact, before Winona was able to get any facts at all. Clara shuddered and sniffed beneath a quilt, curled up on the good chair.

“And you came to see me, of all people,” Winona sighed, and sipped her chamomile.

“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Clara said, and started crying again. “All my friends hate me. I can’t disappoint the Director, and… and…”

“I’ve been friendless for long periods,” Winona said. “There’s no shame in it. When I left home, I had no one. And each time I leave a community behind, I start over. I am sorry you don’t have a better place to go than the house of the woman who let your friends be hurt and ruined your summer for some mad woman’s ploy.”

“Isn’t the Director your friend?” Clara said. “That’s why you ran her Summer Program.”

Winona winced, and set down her tea.

“Charybdis and I have a complicated history,” Winona said. “It sounded alright on paper. A simple trade. Something she had that I wanted, and in exchange, I would make sure her prize pupils—well, pupil—were coping with their power well. I was kinder in the testing than she would have been.”

Winona took a black square stone from her robes, and put it on the table.

“These weren’t worth it,” she said. “Nothing could have been worth it.”

Clara rubbed at her eyes, and stared at the stone.

“Those are the Blood Cards of Xyzikxyz,” she said. “She had me draw one. It was what convinced her to let me stay at Downing Hill. They tell the future, right? I can see why you wanted them.”

“I would give them back,” Winona said, “if I could give you and Arnold and Friday and Harrow and Victoria back your futures.”

“You still haven’t found Friday, have you?” Clara mumbled through a handkerchief.

“She’s hidden well away from me,” Winona said. “I can’t blame her.”

“I don’t know what I did wrong,” Clara breathed, and looked up at the rafters.

“I’m not sure her decision to leave was entirely about you,” Winona said.

“I mean with the spell,” Clara said, and pinched the bridge of her nose, closed her eyes. “It was supposed to work. I’ve spent years, Winona, inside this book looking for the right words. And I did it wrong, and now my…”

She began sobbing again, and it was a fourth tea before she was able to speak without breaking. Tivali curled in front of the wood stove like a ball of soot, and the day had grown dark outside.

“I’m so sorry for what has happened,” Winona said. “Losing my mother… well, I was in a different country. I didn’t learn about it until two weeks later. We weren’t that close, in the end, and my hopes of fixing that relationship died in that moment too. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you.”

“I can’t stop to think about it,” Clara said, and put her hands in her hair. “Because it’s not over. My dad is still out there. I can fix him. I have to. There’s so much I need to do.”

“Clara, you are trying to do something that the most esteemed magical minds have been trying to do for twenty years,” Winona said. “And I would know. I’ve studied with them. I’ve consulted the Spindle. The Deep End and the Complex. I’ve studied at the Church of the Hallowed Name, which was insufferable. And almost no one has done more research than Carrie.”

“Director Blackletter, you mean?” Clara said.

“She pores over a lot of books when she’s not busy lording over her nursery,” Winona sighed.

“She was going to help me,” Clara said, and rubbed at her eyes until they were pink. “I should have listened.”

“Clara, I am going to impart to you something that I have been failing to learn all my life,” said Winona. “Whenever I travel to learn more about the arcane, I find people, powerful people, who I think for a time could solve my problems if I could just do what they can do. But getting closer to them costs something. Always. The more you chase power, the more you will have to sacrifice. And I have given up so much of who I used to be that I am hardly anyone at all, anymore. I’m a ghost. I’ve got nothing left to give.”

“But you can change things,” Clara said, and unwrapped a peppermint from her pocket, and pressed it into her mouth. “My whole life, I’ve never been in charge of what happened to me. Not with my parents. Not with Riot. Not with Downing Hill. I just need to do this, and then I’m done. My dad is still out there. I need him. I need to get him back.”

“It’s always a little farther,” Winona said. “A lifetime of disappointments later, I can tell you that. I keep hoping it will be enough. It’s never enough.”

“What else am I supposed to do?” Clara said, and cleaned the moisture from her glasses on her dress. “I can’t leave him out there. I don’t care about being the Director’s pet or even her mission. I just want him back. I do this mission, and the Director will help me fix this, and that’s it.”

“Clara,” Winona began, but the girl was already setting aside her quilt.

“Thank you for the tea,” Clara said. “And for what it’s worth… your test? It taught me a lot. It made me stronger. I hope, strong enough to do this.”

“Clara, please don’t…” Winona began, but the girl was through her cabin door and leaped off the deck, and the next moment was gone, a shadow on a broomstick rising into the night.

Winona sighed, and sat back in her chair, and Tivali hopped into her lap and dug her claws into Winona’s leg.

“You poor girl,” she mumbled, maybe to Clara, or maybe to herself. “They’re going to be the death of you.”

Outro - Cups

Cups. May yours floweth over, dreamer. May your precious droplet of a lifetime be beautiful, and your draught long and sustaining. I wish you more joy than you can store, more love than you know what to do with. I hope treasured moments spill heedlessly across the floors of your life, and ruin the dreary carpets of your past. Drink your fill. Drink while you still hold the chalice. It is your right.

Until all cups run dry, and the fountain of eternity falters, until the stars give up their mead and the heavens distill into darkness, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting bountifully for your return to the Hallowoods.

The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Echoes' 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!


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