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HFTH - Episode 124 - Educations



Content warnings for this episode include: Religious Abuse, Animal death (Beast the Bear), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Bugs, Body horror, Electrocution, Rats




Intro - Homeschooler

You have never wanted to go to school. The imagery is everywhere in your favorite stories and films, but those grey classrooms and dusty blackboards, stern teachers and neat uniforms and graded paperwork and bent lockers and scent of lemon cleaning spray will never be yours. You see them for what they truly are.


You have no disdain for what few friends you have that go; on the contrary, you are sorry for them. You are sorry that their studies do not include the word of god or the pursuit of his divine mystery. You are sorry that the devil can tempt them each day with all the sinful subjects of the world. You are sorry that they learn false facts and recite evil doctrine.


And you are sorry for them, in the end, because their parents have not taught them to survive, were too trusting of man’s power, did not prepare their souls for the latter days. Because your family now leaves in the night, and takes you to join more survivors like yourself, and those in school will rot with it forever as the rapture begins and the sky sings Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now, I’m sitting in a circle of light. It stems from the ceiling of the tent, where cold air pours in like frosted breath, and falls upon the floor of black-spattered stone. From the wooden beams within, skeletons hang like tattered bats. Two of them are still alive, and it is those two that are watched from the door of the tent by those hoping to teach them a lesson. The theme of tonight’s episode is Educations.



Story 1 - Two Cages

“Dismemberment,” said Friday. “We pull off the fingers and toes first, then the eyes and ears, then the longer limbs. And we make a nice garden sculpture out of them.”


“Too grisly,” said Penny, and stitched a button into the canvas face of a doll. Friday frowned.


“We could throw them into Edgar’s web,” Friday suggested, and jabbed a doll of her own, “and let him chew on their souls for days after they dry out. We can’t leave them there forever, unfortunately, because he’s going to outgrow his hut soon, but it would be wicked fun.”


“Too tedious,” said Penny, and stitched another button.


“I could peck out their eyes,” croaked the black raven, which sat on a hoard of stolen buttons from their afternoon project. “And then peck them to death!”


“I do like a good pecking,” Friday shrugged, and stuck her needle through her doll’s face.


“It might give your friend indigestion,” said Penny, and ran a thread through itself, forming a smile link by link. “I’m sure they’re very stringy.”


“I’m beginning to think you may not really want to kill them at all,” Friday frowned, and threaded a button with an X of thread. “Which would be quite ridiculous, because they stole you away from mother and kept you in a glass box underground for most of your life, and death is really a mercy for all they deserve.”


“I know,” Penny said, and set down her doll. It had two button eyes and half a smile, and a dress out of the tatters of a lace tablecloth. “But I… they… oh. Well that’s just it. There are dozens of other things like me, they call them CPE’s, they left locked up in the Institute. These two are the only ones who can get back in.”


“How unfortunate for them,” shrugged Friday. “I suppose they’ll have to manage. How long before the cannibalism starts, I wonder.”


“Don’t be horrid,” said Penny, with a sharp look. “I’m sure they were stolen away from their families too.”


Friday stabbed another button into her doll, in lieu of a mean word. “Surely you’re not dreaming that I’m going to let you go back with those two monsters across the country to… where was your prison, again?”


“I’m not sure,” Penny said, and crossed her arms, abandoned sewing her doll’s smile. “One more reason why I need them alive. Surely you understand being locked up in a place. Wanting to set your cell-mates free.”


Friday sighed, and set down her doll, whose dress was a black lace from a mourning shroud. She might have matched Penny’s cheery one, except that hers had eight button eyes and no mouth at all.


“You’re attached to them,” she said. “Your captors. How could you be expected to kill them? They’re practically the only people you’ve ever known.”


“I expect you know how that feels, too,” Penny said quietly, and looked up to the tent across the path, where Misters Raven and Writingdesk still awaited their fate.


“I’m trying to get over it,” Friday said. “I’m going to start by setting fire to Downing Hill, and see if that helps with catharsis. If it doesn’t, then I may have to go to desperate measures, like killing the Director myself.”


“Do you think you could?” Penny said, and held her doll in her hands. Making dolls together was the kind of thing they should have been doing a decade ago. Friday couldn’t help but feel they were a bit old for it, now. The cloth bodies were so small in their grown-up hands. But that was the cost of making up for lost time. “Kill your old professors, if you had them hanging in the next tent over?”

“Oh yes,” Friday said. “I’d do it without thinking twice.”


They were both quiet for a moment.


“But that’s the difference between our cages,” she continued, and looked down at her spider-faced doll, toddled it around in her hands. “In your cage, you could only play games and read nursery rhymes. And in mine, they made me kill the other cellmates for sport. It takes the weakness out of you. It does. They don’t lie about that part. But it takes something important out of you, too. Something that maybe should have stayed. Which is why I don’t understand you when you say you want these two to remain living.”


“Don’t worry,” Penny said, and walked her half-smile doll over to Friday’s, and sat it down beside hers. Friday looked up to find her sister smiling gently. “That’s what I’m here for.”


Friday paused a moment, then leaned the head of her doll on the shoulder of the other.


“You don’t have to come, you know,” she said quietly. “When I pay a visit to Downing Hill. People are going to get hurt. I’ve never let loose, really let loose, before. What I did to your captors was just a taste. It’s going to be terrible, and you may not want to see it. Even Grandmother Briar is going to keep her witches away—they’re more about the natural course of things, anyway.”


“Oh, I’m coming,” Penny said, and hopped up her doll to dance around on the tent floor. “What kind of sister would I be if I didn’t show up for your grand revenge arsonry?”


Interlude 1 - What To Learn?

What to learn, what to learn, with these brief years you have been given?


A few decades ago, you might have been burdened with the pressures of a society. Learn programming, or dreamtech development, or sociology. Become useful to the grinding machine disguised as your culture, that you may cut your scant slice of the pie. More work than you can output, more debt than you can dream, to pay the price of one ticket to your own society.


I will not point any of my many fingers at who is to blame for that, but let us just say a certain soul harvester does not leave as small a trace on his farmworlds as he seems to think.


Regardless, it is over, broken by the rain. What to learn, what to learn, now that the machine is dead?


To keep bees, or make a poulstice, or prepare a feast or tend a garden? To sharpen arrows or build shelter, to set traps and catch or forage? To tell which plants are poisonous, and in this age, which are venomous? To discern which offerings please the Solar Stag? These years are yours, dreamers, and there is too much to learn, and only so much space in your head. Best fill it, then, with what pleases you.


We go now to one thoroughly studied.



Story 2 - The Blizzard

Please, Olivier prayed with every passing breath. Please hear me. Please reach me in this place. Please muster wind to my feet and ice to my hands, fill the air with storm and blizzard.


But all the training and the focus in the world could not change the fact that the Weather could not hear him, and he could not feel it anywhere in the expanse of starlit darkness above. Wherever the forest had spit them out, this realm of eternal ice was not of this world, and it was no storm that compelled the great fragments of ice below their feet to crack and tumble.


“Ollie,” Riot called, wrapped in her puffy winter coat and trying to keep her footing as their island of ice began to rise. Olivier ran for her, reached out on instinct for the wind, but there was no wind at all in this place, only a canopy of green stars and flaming northern lights, a resplendent flame that promised no salvation.


Olivier caught up to her, shook his head to her hopeful glance, and followed with her to the frost-encrusted edge of their jagged cliff of ice. The slope was steepening behind them as their iceberg tilted, and their view of the surrounding landscape became higher—twenty feet, twenty-five over the surface, huge landmasses of ice churning in every direction. He could not see Diggory or Percy; a flash of red that might have been Mort passed in a glimpse between two distant spires of ice. But there was only one priority that mattered, anyway. He grabbed Riot’s hand as they approached the cliff edge, unsure of which way to go.


“So I’ve got lots of ideas,” Riot yelled to be heard over the grinding crackle of the landscape beyond, a maze of ice in motion. “One involves trying to jump down to that ice island, but I might break all my bones again and then you’ll have to fix them and I’ll whine a lot. We could try to dig in with the ice picks and hang on to this one, but this chunk might flip over and drown us. Or we try to stay on top of it like balancing on a barrel, but I’m not very good at that, and we might roll off into the ocean. Which do you like?”


“Those all sound bad,” Olivier called back, looking for other ways out. The water bubbled and seethed far below, in the cracks between the ice floes.


“Well, I’m open to other ideas,” Riot said, and removed a metal pick from the side of her bag. “But if you don’t have any, I’m leaning towards ice picks.”


Olivier was about to speak, when the grinding stopped without warning, and the seething black ocean between the icebergs stopped boiling, and the huge shelves of ice began to gently sink and settle.


“What do you know?” Riot called, as their platform rumbled back into the sea. The air was full of frost, plumes sent flying by the shifting landscape, but nothing so gracious as snow. Riot stared over the edge at the black miasma that lurked just beneath the water’s surface, seemed to shift between curling limbs and mouths and eyes and fingers, like ink drifting in a glass of water.


“I’m not sure if I have time for an entry in my new almanac,” Riot said, “but in the meantime, I’m taking swimming off the table.”


“You’d get hypothermia anyways,” Olivier said, and tapped the ice with his foot. “I don’t know where everyone is, but I thought I saw Cindy and Mort headed that way.”


“Well it all looks the same, so let’s go that way, sure,” Riot said, and held her ice pick in one hand, kept the other on the hilt of her sword. They took a large step from their island to the next, careful not to slip down into the ten-foot chasm of liquid darkness.


“It got so still,” Riot said, shouldering her bag as she took a large step onto the next floe. Despite the horizon returning to a flat tranquility, Olivier could not spot the rest of their party. “What do you think this thing is?”


“I knew there would be guardians in this zone,” Olivier said. “I didn’t think the guardian would be the zone.”


“Zone?”


“There’s the Hallowoods, which is as far as Downing Hill wanted to take the library,” said Olivier. “The second zone is that portion of woods where the instruments stop working… with the trees in weird colors, and the faceless thing. And out here is the final stretch. In what used to be our arctic circle.”


“Did the Director offer you any great tips on how to survive the arctic nights up here?” said Riot.


“Yes,” Olivier said, and glanced up at the sky of green stars. “They usually relied on my powers working up here. But…”


He fell on his knees, suddenly, and put his gloves in his frayed blue hair.


“Ollie?” Riot said, back by his side in a moment. “You okay?”


“I’m so sorry,” he sobbed; the freezing breath was sharp in his lungs, the tears froze on his skin. “I thought I’d be useful. But I can’t. I can’t save anyone. I can’t feel anything. I can’t get us out of this…”


Riot wrapped her mittened arms around him; although she barely could, on account of the bulky parkas and bags of gear.


“Hey,” Riot whispered. “Hey. It’s okay. Stop trying to be useful, alright? I just need you here.”


Olivier gasped for air, and held on to her tightly.


“I mean, at least you have training and stuff,” Riot said. “Look at me. I’ve got a sword. Even if we found the heart, what am I gonna do? Slice it into tiny little pieces? Cindy’s the one with the plan. I think for now, we just stay together, and stay alive.”


Olivier looked up to her, and sniffed, and Riot brushed his cheek with the thumb of her mitten, and smiled with her frostbitten red cheeks.


He was so distracted by the smile, in fact, that he did not notice the subtle swell and rise of the water, the ichorous mass of life beneath them shifting its weight beneath the ice, until it was too late. He looked down at his feet. The ice was thinning to glass, and tendrils beneath it spelled, over and over in messy cursive, ‘you’re next’.


Then the ice splintered, and a geyser of life tore through the world between them, glistening pseudopods that contained wolves and polar bears and snapping focus and a seething multitude of teeth hungry for god-touched blood…



Marketing - The Moth

Lady Ethel:

There’s something out there. I can just see its eyes. Red and glowing.


Hello? Who’s out there? Don’t come closer, I’m extremely armed.


…it’s still staring.


Hello?


It’s tall. As tall as I am, I think. Eyes are compound. Ears, long and…feathery. Antenna, actually. Black fur in articulated tufts. Hands, segmented. And many.


Hello?


You can come closer.


It has wings. A lot of them, growing, and growing. Its wings are filled with eyes.


Hello?


I think you and I are a lot alike. I’m sure we could…


Talk.


It’s gone. Whatever beautiful thing that was, it’s gone...



Story 2, Continued - The Blizzard

You leave that moth alone. It doesn’t need your bad influence, and you’d make a poor friend to any living thing.


We return now to Olivier Song.


Olivier tumbled back with the torrent of ice and frost, lost a strap of his bag as he rolled, ice picks and camping supplies flying. He reached out, and managed to snag his stormcloak from the pack before it peeled from him completely. He rolled to his feet as the cascade of flying ice crashed into the surface. The frozen ground beneath him splintered and shuddered, and ahead of him, a gigantic shape as black as tar rose from the ice like a steam locomotive rolling out of the ground. Its surface roiled like a storm, at times covered in inscription, moments later a great domed horror with millions of cilia, a moment again a huge skull of the dead polar bear stretching back into black tendons, now a hundred polar bears writhing like figures in a renaissance painting of hell.


“Hello,” said the mountain of sludge, but it was more a serpent now, coiling slowly toward Olivier, cracking the ice as its gargantuan weight slopped across the surface. “Welcome to… me.”


“Riot!” Olivier called; was she on the other side? Had she been sucked down into the water? Was she stuck inside of the abyssal worm?


“No,” said the Monolith. “My name is Creep.”


As it spoke, with a million tongues and none of them earthly, it lurched in his direction, shot a dozen long pseudopods out like anchors by which to drag itself towards him at a frightening speed. Olivier ran, jumping for the air but with no wind to catch him, and screamed as the ice platform was suddenly tipped into the sea by the clawing weight of the many tons of horror behind him, and he found himself for a moment airborne.


Either, he thought, in a reflective moment as shards of ice tumbled around him, and a dozen black feelers shot through the air, changing from teeth to fingers to teeth,


the director abandoned me because she believed I failed her tests, and was too weak to complete my final mission, in which case I should never have come here


or, she’s still manipulating me, even now, and this is where she wants me to be and I’m just a pawn who never escaped and every free thing I think I’ve ever done is a lie, in which case what is the point of fighting.


Closer, closer. An ocean of shadow, a twinkle of starlight. A million grinning teeth in odd places, endless white on one horizon, endless darkness on the other.


No, Olivier thought. I am neither pawn nor failure.


I am stormy. I am powerful. I am good at what I do. And what I do is protect myself, and the people I care about, and shape the weather. I am the thunder and the first fall of rain, the burning light in the clouds, the warmth and cold, the change in wind and echo of easons, hail and sleet and lightning and hurricane and blizzard. I matter, because a storm refuses to be ignored.


And all that I am is loved.


The hair rose on his arms, and his lips, and the back of his neck. And, in a cloudless firmament, there was a rumble of distant thunder.


Olivier screamed and lifted his hands, and the static at his fingertips sparked in cerulean light, and it was enough for the black coils to peel back away from him. He did not fall, for a vicious wind caught his feet, and with a sweep of his hand he was thrown skyward, laughed in hysterical freefall, for a rose of grey cloud was blooming in the dark heaven above.


The Weather had heard his cry, rushed from beyond space into a world not its own, and he was the eye of the hurricane, the floodgate through which poured all the hail in heaven. It was rain, first, cascading in thunderous droves, and then it was just as quickly snow, and he threw freezing lances of wind one after another into the oily behemoth below him.


It didn’t like the freezing, he thought, eyes ablaze with crackling light. And bristling within him, helpless to stop it, hailing and trumpeting from the clouds above, consuming the sky of emerald stars, was the blizzard of the century.




Interlude 2 - Educational Institutions

If you have been listening to my humble messages so far, dreamers, you may be filled with questions. Where can one go to learn more about this universe of indescribable life, the timelines and processes of the Industry, the life that clusters on worlds far beyond ours, how many eyes does Nikignik have and what color are they exactly?


To those, dreamer, I can recommend some sources to better educate yourself. For all things regarding Marolmar, consult the walls of the tomb in Marolmar’s World, for I wrote all I could upon them.


Similarly, for matters regarding the Council of Heavens and its formation, procedures, and parliament, they are written on the interior tiers of the Council Chamber. If they were written on the Outer Tiers, I might have had some edifying material to read while I guarded the gates.


The catacombs in the Dream-City of Distant Kazanth provide a wonderful primer on the nature of dream. And for all other matters, see Zelkryzelk the Omniscient One, keeper of the Grand Archives… but then again, I suppose if you tried, you would end up nameless. Best then that you just use your imagination.


We go now to one full of imagination.



Story 3 - The First Stone

“This is the place,” Jonah said, and tapped his boot on the ground. From a nearby chunk of black stone, a beady-eyed rat looked at him quizzically, a tiny green crown flickering over its head.


“The place for what?” it said.


“Where I fell through the cabinet,” Jonah said, and put his hands on his hips, looked out over the horizon. “I fell just about here. Because it’s a bit of a cliff, whereas the other outcrops around here are more like hills, and the mausoleum thing is right over there on the horizon.”


The rat looked with mild interest, although he supposed it would be hard to see those distant pillars from its lower vantage point. The words written upon them he would never be able to express in human thought.


“Did you drop something when you landed?” said the rat. “A key or a bit of cheese, perhaps?”


“You like cheese?” said Jonah.


“I like anything,” said the tiny king. “I am a sewer rat.”


“Right,” said Jonah, and put a hand to his brow, squinted up through the sky of green stars and waving bands of spectral light.


“No, I’m here because somewhere up in the sky, maybe a quarter mile, maybe more, there’s a door,” he said. “And it’s a door that’s still got the key in it, unlike the one in the mountain.”


“There is a third door,” noted the rat king.


“Well where is that one?” Jonah said, and looked down.


“I do not know,” said the rat. “The third herald was unknown for quite a while. The third door is also a mystery to me.”


“I thought you were the master of mysteries,” Jonah said, although he knew the rat spoke the truth, which was not something he would have expected of rats at large.


“I am a king,” it squeaked, “and of secrets. Secrets and mysteries are different things.”


“Right,” Jonah said, and looked down at the rat again. “How do you get around? You seem to be here whenever you want.”


The rat shrugged. Jonah had never seen a rat shrug before. He kept staring at it.


“My domain is a larger one than yours,” said the rat. “You keep dying in the Faceless King’s domain and he does not want you back, and you have no power there. Also I am better at this then you are, yet.”


“How do I get better?”


“Try thinking about it,” said the rat. “I think of what I want, and it happens.”


Jonah thought about blinking and finding himself back on the other side of death, the way he had done many times before. He thought about the sunlight on his skin, and strolling back into the early morning birdsong of a familiar forest, and finding Hector, and kissing that man and never letting him go.


Still he stood in abyssal silence, with a ground of rough black stone and a sky of emerald void, with only a rat for company.


“Thinking’s not working,” he said.


“Well then,” said the rat, “I suppose we will be here a long while.”


“You can leave whenever you like,” Jonah said.


The rat frowned, which he also had never seen before.


“I probably should,” said the rat. “For instance, something very serious has happened in the Faceless King’s domain—the Endless Storm is trying to enter it. The shell the heart has grown is not enough, and storm is seeping in. Whatever it wants, this could be very bad. But I would hate to leave you lonely.”


“No,” Jonah said. “Go ahead. I’ll still be here for a while.”


He looked down to the ground, and paused.


“And if you see a man,” he added, “with a black beard, and a dog, and an arm made of wood. Please tell him that I’m alright. That I’m coming as fast as I can, and I might not be home soon, but I will be home. That should qualify as a secret.”


When he looked back, the rat was gone. Damn, he thought. If only it was that easy.


He took a few more steps, looking for the right place, and a sound alerted him to it; a loud click. There on the shiny black rocks was a shinier, even darker spot. He knelt down, and ran his calloused finger across it. Water.


Another drop fell on the brim of his hat. He looked up, and if he squinted, he thought he might just be able to see the smallest of black dots in the green cloud above. Dripping water through a door beneath a lake.


He nodded to himself, and reached over, pulled a big round rock to mark the spot. Then he found another, and set it beside the first one, and put a third on top of those two.


It is possible, he thought, for a man to move a mountain, if he has a sturdy back and sufficient motivation and plenty of time.


My back is good, he thought, and I would work forever if I get just one more chance to see Hector, and I have all the time in the universe.



Outro - Educations

Educations. One is coming for you. It cannot be stopped. It marches inexorably in your direction, and run all you can, when you grow tired or stumble, it will be there, waiting with ruler-like claws and chalkboard teeth to correct you.


But you will survive, it will find you again and again, in many forms, and just when you think you have earned the right to be free of it, it will return. You may spot it, if you are lucky, in the halls of some archaic institution or grand archive. But you are more likely to find it in the words of a friend, slowly reconstructing your view of the world, or lurking in the pages of a story, or crouching in the world outside your window.


And one by one, each time they find you, they will climb into your neck and live at the back of your mind, and change you so far from where you started that you barely recognize yourself. And you, being educated now, will think yourself the better for it.


Until you stop learning, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting tuitionally for your return to the Hallowoods.





The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Snowstorm' 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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