Content warnings for this episode include: Abuse, Animal cruelty or animal death (Beast the Bear), Contemplations of Suicide, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Bugs, Birds, Misgendering, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror, Alcohol Use, Religious Violence, Child Sacrifice
Intro - Glacierbound
What is that half-formed thing trapped in the ice, you wonder? Its face almost human, its eyes sunken with almost sentient darkness? But it cannot be the same, for the years have separated your paths, and surely they must have held some great change.
If only you were distinct. But you are the thing in the ice, and you are the expedition, pickaxe in hand, and you are the historian pressing photographs of the glacier into journals. And at each time, you were the best result of your present, anxious to distance yourself from the past, in a hurry to reach the future.
You were, and are, and will be, and as the ice shifts from solid to water to sky, so does your identity, and sense of thought, your belief in who you are. Past and present and future bleed together, flow into the roots of a forest that has always said Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I sit in the window of a building that lives on borrowed time. It was a barren expanse of mud lakes and winding trees, and then a motel that was run-down the day it was created, and then briefly mud again, and now a palace in the wasteland. The pale sun reflects on the lakes and the dark forest on the horizon. A firefly crawls on the window, bats against the glass. The theme of tonight’s episode is Evolutions.
Story 1 - Bartender Burdens
Polly paced behind the bar, with his sleeves rolled up and his floral suit jacket folded over the back of a chair. Dimes had requested a day off to look after their Diamond Hound—something about needing to visit another dimension every so often; Polly was not exactly sure and did not exactly care. And Yaretzi was working the office, as usual, and so it was to him to tend the bar on an otherwise quiet winter afternoon.
“Here you are,” he said, and carried a tray of drinks to the booth by the window, and deposited the first in front of an invisible occupant. Since he could not see exactly where the man was, he put the martini glass in an inoffensive place near the middle of the table. “One raspberry cosmo.”
“Thank you,” said the invisible man, and the glass scooched a few inches across the table of its own accord. “That looks great.”
“Certainly,” said Polly. “For you, sir, the Malört.”
That went to a man whose skin had been overtaken by green scales and moss; he wrapped a webbed, clawed hand around the glass, and a yellow eye blinked at Polly.
“Mm,” the man grunted.
“And for you… water with sugar?” he said, and placed the last glass in front of the woman who was infested with fireflies.
“I’m so sorry, but I asked for this in a bowl,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to drown.”
“Ah! Right you did,” said Polly. “One moment.”
Polly spirited the glass away, and fished a wide crystal dish from the back cabinet. He barely looked up as a shadow arrived at the end of the bar.
“You’re up early,” Polly remarked.
“Long night,” the Count grinned, and rubbed at his eyes. Polly finished mixing the sugar into the warm water, and whisked it back out to the table.
“Thank you,” said the infested woman, and her fireflies poured out of her baggy coat sleeves to nestle at the brim of the bowl, lowering their delicate heads to the water. She smiled with a wrinkled jaw. “Very sweet.”
“Any exciting plans for the rest of the day?” Polly said, pausing at the table edge. He wasn’t particularly keen on the walking health code violation, but he also was not eager to return to chitchat with the Count.
“Well, we’ve been working hard on renovations,” said the man that Polly could not see. “Trying to get our new house to stay warm in this weather is a challenge.”
“Oh lovely,” said Polly. “New to town?”
“Yes,” grumbled the lake dweller. “Well, I used to live around here. But now we’ve got a house right on the lake.”
“It’s interesting,” said the woman with firefly eyes, “how we invent new selves to fill our new shells.”
“It is, isn’t it,” Polly frowned. “Well. If you need anything else, do let me know.”
He drifted back to the bar, where the Count was still sitting at the only occupied bar stool. Polly ignored him and went to polish glassware that didn’t need polishing.
“You seem put upon,” said the Count.
“I’m sorry?” Polly said, and looked up. The Count’s eyes were tiny red points in dark eyes, and his teeth were shiny and sharp as he smiled.
“Burdened,” the Count said. “I thought devils were supposed to be cool. But you’ve got an energy about you like a fox at a foxhunt.”
“It’s the bartender’s job, I think, to analyze the patrons,” Polly said.
“Ah,” said the Count, and spread his hands. He wore a mesh shirt beneath his motorcycle jacket, and smiled jovially. “Well then. What do you see?”
“A vulture,” Polly sniffed. “I’m just not sure whose corpse you’re circling.”
“You’re very rude for a hotel manager,” the Count said, and folded his hands, although his smile did not wear off.
“You’re very rude for a guest,” said Polly, and glanced towards the door, but no footsteps disturbed the lobby beyond. “And your entourage keeps breaking my things.”
“Point out to me any man who does this and I shall mount his head on the hood of my motorcycle as a warning to the rest,” said the Count, with a decisive nod. “We will tolerate no such roudiness in your fine establishment.”
“That only gives me more blood to clean up, on top of the rest,” Polly sighed, and set his glass done, folded the bar towel over his arm. He leaned against the back cabinet.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said.
“By all means,” said the Count, and stretched out one ponderous black wing from his waist, and then the other, flexed the spined finger-like structures within before folding them back to his back like a cloak. “Inquire.”
“You said that the Northmost woods are dangerous,” Polly said, and double-checked that Yaretzi had not found her way into the bar. “And that my… friend, up there, is as good as dead. Why is that? What’s happening? Do you mean that literally or are you being hyperbolic?”
“You’re a fascinating case, my friend,” said the Count. “I’ve never heard of a devil who had friends at all.”
“I’d recommend it to anyone,” Polly said. “You ought to try sometime.”
“Oh I have many friends,” said the Count, and put a hand on the breast of his jacket. “I count you among them. I am simply curious as to how you found yourself in this position with your eyes intact.”
“I’d gotten bored of my work,” Polly said, and picked up another glass, buffed out any dust or spot. “I wanted a change. It found me in the way of a starwolf and a large undead friend. And I’m very vested in their safety.”
“And still you let your so-called friend wander into the north unaccompanied,” the Count said, and clucked disapprovingly. “The North is like this hotel. It’s bigger on the inside than it looks. It’s full of unexpected powers. And it’s designed to be deadly, because it must protect itself. Though you’ve robbed this place of its soul-stealers and trap rooms and disappearing doors.”
“Oh I don’t doubt it’s a terrible idea for the rest of them,” Polly said. “But he’s already dead. Filled with the stuff. You still don’t think he will be safe? Is safe?”
The Count sighed, and leaned in close over the bar.
“Listen,” he said. “Friend. I have come up here to pay my respects to a grand occasion. The last twenty years of rain have been a prelude. A softening of the ground. And now it’s spring, and the garden is about to bloom. It’s going to be, well. I don’t know if cataclysmic is the word, because it’s not just an end, it’s a beginning. Intense.
If you want to save anything, you need to hold it tightly, never let it out of your sight. The moment you do, it disappears. I can only offer my condolences about your friend, and if it helps, one of my secrets. For free, no charge. The people all go away, eventually, when you’re as long-lived as you and I. But you get to keep the memories. To leave a mark on someone’s life is akin to immortality.”
The Count might have smiled somberly, not his great wide grin, but Polly did not see it; he turned and with a spiral of flame stepped through space to Yaretzi’s office. She looked up from the reservation books in surprise as he appeared, and tilted her head.
“Apollyon? Is everything alright?”
“It’s time,” he said, and tried to speak calmly despite the panic compressing his false lungs, the sputter of flame in his horns. “We’re going after Mort.”
Interlude 1 - Mote of Cells
First, a singular mote of cells. Who is to say where it came from? Perhaps one of Syrensyr’s world-seeds, or life carried underfoot by Marolmar, or born from a far-off place by an asteroid.
Regardless, life. And from it, green. Invertebrates and jawless little fish, and then fish in great quantities, and reptiles, and fins burgeoning into extremities capable of dragging a body up onto the burning land. An age of insects, an age of reptiles, an age of man. Nature on fire and frozen and on fire again, tides washing away the land, continents cracking.
It would be an arrogance, dreamer, to see yourself as the end of this line of billions of years, rather than one more section in its journey. There was always to be another ending, another beginning. And now, as the world warms and the oceans rise, as your race is evolved again by the impossible whims of a long-dead artist, a new age dawns. And it hastens steadily along, a heartbeat of change that keeps the same gentle rhythm, driving growth in every cell. And the line goes on.
We go now to one who fosters change.
Story 2 - Someone's Living Daughter
Indrid Buckley kept a careful eye over her shoulder as she paced the forest drive. The accursed library was jealous of its property, and employed dangerous guardians, and they would notice soon enough what she had taken. But no firestorm of ravens or sudden thunder pursued her. And as she drew close to the Church, she began to believe that she might be blessed today after all.
The girl she had rescued from the shadow within that library shell was not much older than Al had been, though certainly less disciplined. And she could not stop looking at the girl from time to time, wondering how another mother could have allowed her to run away, become so lost. Always the shepherd, Indrid was, but never given a flock to call her own.
Johannah Wicker, meanwhile, had taken the Sandals of Steady Footing from her bag, and used them to walk up tree trunks and along the branches as they went.
“Be careful,” said Indrid. “Your mother would not be pleased if you return to her with a concussion.”
“Where did you get these?” Johannah said, and leapt from the branch of one snowy pine to the next, laughed in an explosion of powder as the branches shook. “These are awesome!”
“They were a gift,” Indrid said. She had no need of her tools for finding the Church now; she knew the trees. “THe Church offers many gifts to its important followers.”
“What makes you important?” said Johannah, and she put out her hands for balance as she tiptoed the long wintry bough of an oak tree.
“I’ve been a member of the church a long time,” Indrid said. “I’ve given everything to it, and it has rewarded me tenfold. They trust me with very delicate work.”
As she spoke, she pulled her Book of Epistles open and jotted down a few words. ‘Arriving shortly. Bird in hand.’
“My mom didn’t mention anything about going to a church,” said Johannah. “We have a church at Fort Freedom. My dad used to be a pastor until he died. Has any of your family died?”
Indrid breathed in through her teeth, pulled her black cloak a little closer. What was that feeling? Irritation? How long had it been since she had felt that, or anything at all?
“You ask a lot of questions,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Johannah, and took a big leap from one tree trunk to the next; the sandals caught on the bark surface like magnets. “For all I know you could be kidnapping me. I’ve been kidnapped lots lately. There was Russell, and Al, and Harrow, and..”
“What do you mean?” Indrid said, and stopped in the winding path, stared at the girl.
“Well, I kind of went with them, but I think it still counts,” Johannah said. “I didn’t really want to spend time with any of them. Scoutpost people suck.”
“About Al,” Indrid said.
“You know Al too?” Johannah said, and yawned. “I thought he was a demon at first. But he’s just a bad little kid like most of them are. I knew spirits were real because Jesus had a holy spirit, but I didn’t know it would be like that. Once I saw an angel. It rescued me from a fox. I liked it better than Al.”
“Yes,” Indrid said, although truthfully she did not know what to say; thoughts surged unpleasantly inside her, tar creeping up the drains in the holy fountain of her spirit. “I saw it a moment as I pulled you out of Downing Hill, is all.”
Johannah’s attention was not with her any more, though, but with the iron gates looming through the cold mist ahead of them, and the black peak of the Church of the Hallowed Name’s new chapel beyond. A woman waited by the gates, trying to make out who they were. Indrid might have expected Johannah to run for the gates, but Johannah came down from the last tree, and stood with her in the road.
“Do I have to go back?” she said.
“Of course,” said Indrid, and knelt down to her eye level. “Your mother has been so worried. She will be very happy to see you.”
“She’s going to punish me,” Johannah whispered, and kicked at the gravel of the path. “For running away.”
“It is a mother’s responsibility to discipline her children,” Indrid said softly. “It is only because she loves you, and wants to set your feet on the right path.”
“I wish she didn’t,” Johannah said.
“I will tell her of your good behavior,” Indrid said. “And how you were taken. No fault of your own.”
Johannah’s eyes brightened. It was a sight Indrid had missed.
“Thank you, lady,” she said.
“Johannah?” a voice cried; Kellyanne Wicker had grown impatient by the gate, and came forward a few steps, a loose scarf around her head, wisps of straw hair floating. “Johannah, is that you?”
Indrid and Johannah approached the gates, and Mrs. Wicker came flying out through the mist to throw her arms around her daughter, collapsed into a weeping hug. Johannah hugged her mother in return.
Indrid watched the mother hold her child, for a moment, curious. But eventually she found that they were not alone; the Vicar stood in his robes by the gate, and nodded to her sagely. We have a lot to talk about, she thought, when the Wickers depart.
Marketing - Because I Ask
Today I had a wonderful journey through a little flat village. The air was crisp, the sun was bright. Birds singing. In the distance I could see a little gathering in the parking lot of an apartment complex. People trading things and making food and drink.
I should have gone to see them. I should have said hello, and gotten some supplies, and made new friends. Maybe asked if anyone needs marketing services. But I just couldn’t move myself to take that first step. After all, I’m a tall, beautiful woman, and some people find that intimidating. And my voice. I know they all know it. Are they like that Angie woman? Have they come to hate my appearances in their dreams every night? Do they hate me? Do you hate me?
I don’t know what to be so that they don’t. I thought I was beloved. I was the face of a nation. I was the new Divine, the new Bowie, the new Marilyn. How did you not love me when that is what I was designed for? Wardrobe and public relations and style and political positions and everything.
Why am I never good enough to be genuinely loved? Do I push too hard for it?
Is it because I ask?
What is so wrong about demanding the attention I know I deserve?
Story 2, Continued - Someone's Living Daughter
Hm. The weather is quite nice outside. Very seasonal. Seems like a lovely day for an identity crisis. But then again, that’s every day in the forecast for Lady Ethel Mallory.
We return now to Indrid Buckley.
Indrid hovered near the Vicar’s side, smiled and nodded pleasantly as Mrs. Wicker composed herself.
“The lord’s blessings on you both, a thousand times,” said Mrs. Wicker. “I thought I would never see my Johannah again.”
Johannah hung on to her mother’s side like a cat up a tree, and only buried her face in Mrs. Wicker’s coat.
“The Church watches after its own,” said the Vicar, and folded his hands amiably. “We are each proud to give whatever we can to our congregation.”
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Wicker, and she found Indrid’s cold hand with her equally cold one, looked into her eyes. There was a joy, deep down in them, that Indrid no longer carried. “Thank you.”
“Thank the lord,” Indrid replied, “for protecting her.”
“I had best return to Fort Freedom,” said Mrs. Wicker, and patted Johannah’s shoulder. “It is not a short journey, and they will be wondering where I have been these last few days.”
“By all means,” the Vicar smiled, and placed a hand on her shoulder, and the other on Johannah’s. “Go safely and with God. And remember that he has given you a gift today, that you may repay his grace with your devotion.”
“My faith is strong,” Mrs. Wicker said, and nodded tearfully. “It will not falter.”
Mrs. Wicker departed with the girl beside her, and their little truck rumbled away from the church grounds. Indrid followed the Vicar into his office deep within the new chapel. It was a beautiful room, tomes of black books on cherry wood shelves, artifacts of church history decorating the desks and walls, shards of black obsidian and the thumbs of saints.
“You have done well,” he said. “How much trouble did the library give you?”
“I do not believe they detected me at all,” Indrid said, taking a seat in the chair across from him. “I was one with the shadows. I slipped in, and hunted for the girl. She lagged behind the rest of a group—children, teachers. They did not notice she was missing, and no one has followed.”
“Well,” said the Vicar, “Let us hope they do not intervene. If you are able to make your way unseen, perhaps we can secure some of our things that they have pilfered. For instance, there is a boy there with beetle tattoos…”
“There was something else,” Indrid said. “You remember my son.”
“Yes, I remember young Al,” the Vicar sighed. “You did well in raising him. Out of all our spring sacrifices, he was the most disciplined and meek child I have known. I remember well his questions about the faith. He understood his purpose perfectly.”
“And you remember what Solomon did,” she said.
“A great shame,” the Vicar said, “and a waste of a spirit so pure as Al’s. It is unspeakable sacrilege to take the skin from a spring sacrifice, a soul given in offering, and then to bind that soul back to the earth, to an instrument. You were right to inform me of that transgression. The Lord punished him in his due time. He did reach out to me in his hour of need, when his enemies grew near around him. It was time for him to confront the Black Eternity. And Al’s soul is finally committed now to the darkness.”
“The drum was not destroyed,” Indrid breathed. “It is there, at Downing Hill. Along with Solomon’s books. The library has taken them. No doubt to unlock their secrets.”
The Vicar frowned, and leaned on his desk, put his hands beneath his chin.
“This is even more serious than I thought,” he said. “But I hope you do not raise this because you wish to retrieve Al. He is gone. His soul belongs to heaven. If we secure his drum, it will only be to release his spirit in offering.”
“I would wish nothing else for him,” said Indrid. “That he is still bound away from the lord’s will is a great shame.”
“Very well,” said the Vicar, and stood from his desk. “We have faced demons and banished devils together. We will assemble the congregation. We will make ready our arms and our spirits. And we will take back what is ours from Downing Hill, and set fire to that wicked library in a pyre not seen since Alexandria.”
Interlude 2 - Multitude of Lights
Life begins as a speck of light, a mote of dust illuminated in sunlight, adrift. And in a moment, it grows, leaps like a fire, consumes all it can. And then, when it has nothing left to burn, it flickers out and is gone again.
A great multitude of lights, then, is the universe, burgeoning in one moment and extinguished the next. To the outside observer, a light turned briefly on and off again. But inside the light, histories and countless lifetimes stretching back to time primordial.
What a thing to be lost in these miniscule, melancholic spheres, where every second is so important, for it is so short as to be measurable in seconds.
No wonder, then, that my kind scoff at the thought of your significance.
We go now to one who walks between your world and mine.
Story 3 - Hector Walked
Hector Mendoza had been truly lost three times.
The first had been when he struck out on his own for the very first time, and he had driven blindly as long and as far as his new black motorbike would take him. He had been adrift, without a home, without a destination, simply followed the highway wherever it called him.
The second had been in a forest with no exits, green stars that mocked his sense of direction, trapped in the orbit of a faceless king he could not escape. But then, he had in his pocket a key out of the labyrinth, a red string back to safety.
Now, he was back again, but had nothing. No dogs, no library card, no Jonah. And plunge deeper as he did, he could not find a trail to follow. The footprints of his fellow explorers left the clearing where he had spoken with the Faceless King, ran in muddy confused loops, doubled around in improbable cycles. They were all still being drawn North, he expected, but along different trajectories now, and they would not converge again until they both hit center.
And so he wandered through the oil-slick pines of the Northmost woods in search of a sign, a landmark, anything that a lost man could use to orient himself in a maze of wilderness and deadly design. But he could not truly call it survival, and it had not been the same since his audience with the Faceless King.
The trees did not regard him, and no eldritch chutter-bird heralded his path. The foxes without faces did not mind him, neither did the eyeless owls stir from their nests. A murmuration in the dark heaven overhead passed over him without notice, and the green lights of fire in the sky ran like phosphorous waters through space. Even the Jesters of the Court of the Faceless King, with their frilled skulls and engorged limbs, only laughed at him with their drawn-back teeth. Look, they laughed. There goes the man whom heaven and earth has forgotten.
And Hector walked. He walked through groves of luminescent mushrooms and cliffs carved into bizarre skulls. He walked through fairy rings and the darkest copse of pines, where not even the starlight shone. He walked through nettles that bit and vines that snagged and thorns that shredded skin from bone.
He walked until his boots had worn to leather strips that flapped sole-less around his ankles. He walked until he came across a pond of thick dark water, where a man lay face-up in the shallows, a man with a black mossy beard and a wrinkled face and a cable-knit sweater, a man missing an arm and most of a leg. Hector took his boots. They fit perfectly, and looked much the same as his.
Hector walked until he reached a large pit, where the prints of a great bear climbed up from a failed trap, and stormed off into the woods, chasing people he could hardly remember. A trap he had set. He had gone in a circle.
Hector stopped walking. How long had it been? Days? Weeks? Lifetimes? His arm of wooden bark was encrusted with lichen that glowed and pulsed in the darkness. His carvings of Heidi and Jackie and Jonah were overgrown like scars. His throat burned dry but there was nothing in this world that could sate him, not enough water in the sea. He looked at the empty bear-pit, and up at the forest beyond it.
“I’m sorry, Jones,” he said. “I’m going home.”
He knew it was a lie, of course, because his home was dead, and always would be. But he turned away, and stood.
For the better part of two days or weeks or years, he stood. Waited.
And then, there it was. A rumble on the horizon. A flare in the far-off treeline, a ripple in the forest as from beyond the black pines, great white mountains loomed and traveled.
The Shuddering Peaks.
His ticket home.
He ran for the mountains like a wild man, then, stumbled and tripped over root and bramble, and though the woods reached out to snare him, he did not stop. There was one disturbance and one only in the perfect circle of the forest in which he was forever bound—a gap in the world where it met reality, a slight distortion of the continent that buckled the earth up into snow-crested mountains, never in any place for long.
And Hector ran for the mountains as though his life depended on it. When he fell at last out of a copse of trees that were black and radiant, into a snowy field sloping gently upwards, he lay in the snow face-first and wept, clawed at the cold beneath his bark fingers. He had never been so happy for snow.
It was not over, of course, he knew. He looked up from the first slope; a labyrinth of dark trees and snowy expanses stretched almost vertically into the sky ahead of him, loomed over the horizon like a tidal wave, disappeared into the clouds high above. He sobbed into the damp grass. When he had walked for lifetimes already, how was he now supposed to climb?
Hector thought about continuing to lay in the snow. Stay on his back and listen to the forest’s ethereal call, until the spring brought warmth and turned the snow into gentle water, washed him down to float in the bog of some shallow clearing. After a life spent walking, how sweet rest would be.
He struggled to one foot, and fell back in the snow. Overpowering, the urge to rest was, and even in his arm of wood there was no more strength to be found.
Maybe I have reached my last mountain, he thought. Maybe you can’t push forever. Maybe at some point you break.
He lay quietly a while, and only until he heard a rustle of fabric hours later did he open his eyes.
A face peered down at him, if a face it could be called. It had empty bandaged sockets, a string of barren teeth. Its skin was brown leather, stitched into strips that wrapped its skeleton like a quilt, trailed off into the air like kite ribbons. It had dried, desiccated feet that hovered a foot off the ground, and had shriveled folded arms like the virgin Mary.
“You took your sweet time,” Hector said to death. “Thought you’d never catch up.”
Death raised a long finger to point at him. Death was prone to doing that, he’d read.
“Yep,” Hector grunted from the ground. “It’s my time. I get it. Do what you have to.”
Death swung its skeletal arm up to the mountainside, and its jaw unhinged in a silent laugh. It took a moment for Hector to catch his meaning, and he put his hands in his hair.
“No,” he said. “Don’t tell me I need to walk.”
Outro - Evolutions
Evolutions. Do not be frightened of the self that lives in the past, for they have much to teach you. Do not live in fear of the self that dwells in the future, for they are shapeless yet, and can be molded always to become what you wish them to. Worry only about the self that resides in the present. It cannot control how it has arrived here, but it can choose where it will go.
And one choice, after another, after another, after another will not bring you any closer to the future, but you will find day by day that the present self has become a little bit more like the future you pictured.
Odd how the changes stack up over time.
Odd how often we do not see them coming.
Odd the power of life to transform so drastically, and yet in the moment, feel so natural. Until your final transformation is complete, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting evolutionarily for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Walking Legs' 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!