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HFTH - Episode 125 - Recollections

Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Bert the Seagull), Suicidal thoughts, Death + Injury, Birds, Cremation, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Explosives, Body horror

Intro - All The Pieces

Have you found all of your pieces yet? Or do you still search for them everywhere you travel? Past a certain point, you begin to wonder if you are complete now, if you have comprehensively identified and catalogued every part of you, if the struggles in your dreams have finally subsided. And then it will be there—a piece of clothing, an odd word, a memory, and you realize that you are still not complete, still some grotesque project half-finished.

But perhaps that is it, you realize, in your dark and quiet moments. Whether you can see the seams or not, is not everyone in a process of assembling themselves? You are not an unfinished puzzle, but a living sculpture, not a painting left undone but a performance art, changing with every friend and moon and season, always a resplendent reflection of the same soul, drawn into a forest that loves the words Hello From The Hallowoods.


Right now, I stand in front of an unlit bonfire. Beyond it is an animal center, where a number of creatures, some small, some very, very large, huddle beneath a roof and try to remember warmer days. The theme of tonight’s episode is Recollections.

Story 1 - Big Dogs

“I don’t remember,” said Big Mikey, although the truth was he was not sure if he didn’t remember being told, or if he hadn’t been told at all. There was a small inquisitive man who was only wearing a shiny suit despite the cold weather, standing in the lot outside of the Find a Friend Animal Center.

“How can you not remember?” said the little man. He seemed angry, and tapped his umbrella on the cracked pavement. “It is of the utmost importance. You met Mort, and then what?”

“We talked for a while,” said Big Mikey. “Then Riot said I could walk with them. So I did.”

“He is not here,” said the talking dog, sniffing the air. It was black, and had thick fur, and little golden decorations that hung from its ears and neck and shoulders, and was bigger than any dog Big Mikey had ever seen. Big Mikey had never met a talking dog, but he’d read about them. The other dogs approached her curiously, but whenever she looked at one it would back away with its tail between its legs.

“Right,” said the little man in the suit. “And then after you walked for a while, what happened? Did they say where they were going? Who was there?”

Big Mikey looked at his speckled hands and tried to remember.

“We walked on the road,” he said. “We went up into the forest for a bit. There was Diggory, and Percy, and my friend Riot, and the one who zapped me, and Hecker and Jonah, and Cindy who wasn’t very nice. They were all going on a big walk. All the way north.”

“The road,” said the dog. “We have come across it. We can follow it, then. That should bring us closer to a trail I can follow.”

“It’s a place to start,” said the little man.

“We should not waste more time,” said the dog. “How much longer did the Count say we had?”

“He made it sound quite urgent,” frowned the little man. “Days, not weeks. And it may take us days to find exactly where he’s gone.”

“I wish you still had your book of spells,” said the dog.

“Would that I did,” said the man.

“I like books,” said Big Mikey helpfully. “I’m reading one about a dog. He goes on a trip. Are you on a trip?”

“It is a rescue mission,” said the dog, “and I am not a dog.”

“Are you Mort’s family?” said Big Mikey, and picked up a nervous three-legged terrier, held it in one big hand and pet it with the other.

The little man and the dog, probably the Polly and Yaretzi Mort had mentioned, didn’t say anything for a bit.

“In a manner of speaking,” said Polly. “We are certainly his friends.”

“He’s my friend too,” said Big Mikey, and set the dog down again. “I’m glad you’re looking for him. It feels bad. Not to be looked for.”

“If there is anything you can tell us,” said Yaretzi. Maybe she was more of a wolf after all. “He is not safe. He made a foolish mistake and ran away. We are trying to bring him home before he gets hurt. I don’t think you want him to get hurt.”

“I don’t,” said Big Mikey, and looked up to Yaretzi, and to little Polly in the parking lot beyond. “He’s worried he’ll be in big trouble. He’s worried he did a bad thing. But he only wanted to help. You should know that. All he wanted to do was help.”

“If you’re worried about protecting him, in some way,” Polly said, and took a few steps forward, frowned at a wayward pit bull. “We’re not going to punish him for running off. We just need to make sure he comes home.”

Big Mikey was not sure why, but he believed him.

“They’re on a mission,” he said. “Mort is going into the ocean. Like twenny thousand fathoms. He’s going to blow up the heart with a big bomb.”

“A what?” said Polly, and fire began to burn on his head, but he did not seem like he wanted to put it out. “When I get my hands on those people I…”

“You said you wouldn’t be mad,” said Big Mikey.

“Not at Mort,” said the little man. “The others? Their safety I can not guarantee.”

“Thank you for your help…” said Yaretzi.

“Mikey,” said Big Mikey. “Big Mikey.”

“Big Mikey,” Yaretzi finished, and turned away from him, looked back. “When we find Mort, we will let him know his friend helped us. I am sure he will be thankful.”

The man turned, and twirled his umbrella, and both he and the dog were gone in a sputter of fire. This surprised Big Mikey, and he looked around for several moments to make sure they were really gone. If Rick was here, he would have probably said the man was the devil. Big Mikey settled down into the recesses of the hollowed-out shell of the shelter building, and picked up his book, and began to read. It was about a dog, and the wild, and the way the wilderness ate everything it touched.

Interlude 1 - Whispers in the Wood

Be careful what you do in the woods, dreamers, when you think no one can see you. Secrets buried here are not hidden away forever, but merely gifted to the roots. The blood you shed is tasted by the soil. The trees you burn are remembered by their kin. It is a vengeful forest, and its memory long, and time has taught it patience but not forgiveness. Information travels in whispers beneath your feet, from deep root to root, and trees far beyond the horizon expect your arrival.

And then there are the trees that watch, and they know not only your footsteps but your face, listen for the wind to carry them your name. They piece together your story, just as I do, but they hold no sympathy for your ending. It is rare to find a watching tree. They are often only seen when they wish to be. Be wary in those moments, for they know that the thread of your life is easily severed, and they have no regret in sending you to meet the blade that will cut it short.

We go now to one who also holds grudges.

Story 2 - Two on the Beach

Cindy Lockheart was rarely out of her element, because she had been trained for all of them imaginable. Every terrain to survive, every method of disabling an armed combatant, a way to escape from every threat posed to herself and her principle had all been drilled relentlessly into her during decades of training.

But all the courses, and years of study of what had gone wrong at the end of the world, had not prepared her for this. The stars were emerald green, the northern lights impossibly bright, and the landscape of ice for miles around her seethed as if it was alive.

The bones of Barty Chum ushered her across the boiling ice maze in their red submersible suit; sheltered her from flying debris with his massive recovery pincer. He carried a precious few metal crates on his back—they had lost so much of her carefully packed equipment, gifted from the Stonemaid cause to aid in their leader’s final mission. They could not afford to lose anything else, or there would be no mission at all. And then, just when it seemed they had no other place to go, no escape from their sinking platform of ice, when the black rot that had taken her wife bubbled up to consume them both, it became quiet.

The silence made her uneasy even more than the agitation. The ocean beneath their feet in every direction for miles was waiting. Planning. She could see it writhe beneath the ice, shifting its mass in other directions past where they walked.

It did not stay silent long. After the silence came the thunder. Peals high in the nothing-atmosphere, reverberating over the frozen barrens. And then the blizzard began, and she missed the quiet after that.

Snow tore through the air in driven flurries, borne by ravenous winds. The cold was biting, and it rent through the many layers of her parka and thermalwear and heat pads, chilled her bones beneath the skin.

“Mort,” she called through the blizzard, “I believe we need to make camp. I have zero visibility.”

“What about our friends?” Mort said; the metal behemoth could not be more than ten feet away from her, but she could barely see him; a shadow in the windswept drifts.

“We can attempt to locate them when the storm lets up,” she said, and rubbed her arms as she squinted through the tempest. It was partially a lie. They had been scattered, and not all of the others were trained survivalists. But she knew enough to guarantee if she wandered out in this storm, looking for them, she would neither find them nor live to see the mission completed.

“Are we going to make a tent?” Mort said, looming closer. Miraculously, the black syrup within his observatory dome did not freeze, but the glass frosted, and ice collected in his shoulder sockets and neck rivets. “I think the tent might blow away.”

“We’ll do something else,” Cindy said; the eyes of his skull were like tiny green lanterns, lighting up the snow. “Just, sit down, like this.”

He sat down on the ice with a flump, and immediately she was stringing up tarps over his dome, securing them with pitons on the ice. It was frightening, really, how fast the snow blanketed them over. Within minutes, the walls of her shelter were formed and packed, a wall that included all of Mort on the windward side.

It was dark beneath the snow-covered tarps, and the wind whipped on all sides as the blizzard carried around and over them, but in here, it was dark and calm. She opened one of the metal crates, and went for a device.

“Is that fire?” Mort said. His glowing eyes were little points of flame in the skull of Barty Chum, the only source of light. “I hate fire.”

“It’s a very small fire,” she said, and held the lighter uncertainly. “If I don’t make it warm in here, I’m going to die, Mort.”

“I can look the other way,” Mort said, after a minute, and his skull bubbled low and out of sight into the suit. “Do it fast.”

She unfolded her portable stove, stuck the pipe out through the tarps into the air above. Already the snow piling around them was heavy. Mort might help with the digging out in the morning. She connected the tiny furnace, and lit the coal within, held her hands to it as it began to radiate heat. It felt like she had been so bereft of it that she had forgotten what it ever felt like; like life bleeding into stitched veins.

“I have good news, and I have bad news,” she said, and looked down. “The bad news is that our fellow expedition members will be hard to find until the weather lets up. We may have to continue on ourselves, and expect to meet them where it all ends. The good news is, whatever the thing beneath the ice was, it’s gone.”

Marketing - The Moth

Lady Ethel:

I’ve found somewhere really serene. I’m sitting in a small log cabin overlooking a frozen lake. I wish I could see my breath. I’m getting close now, I think. To the border. Just Minnesota left to cross. What a nothing of a state.

I didn’t grow up with a lot of lakes as a child. I used to pretend I lived on the moon. That’s what it felt like, with a pale desert in every direction, and towns so small it felt like a lunar colony. If that lunar colony was only home to a gas station and a dollar store and an RV park. Big trucks rolling around like rovers, exploring the surface.

When I saw a lake for the first time... well, it wasn’t really a lake at all, it was a reservoir at a place called Truth or Consequences... but it had big green water that went on and on, and I was amazed. Amazed that I lived on the earth. And I swore to myself, I’m going to leave after this. Whenever I can. And I’m going to make something of myself, and I’m going to own a lake so I can visit it whenever I want.

In retrospect, that’s how lakes work anyway. And my view was of the Pacific Ocean, devouring San Francisco year after year. And now I don’t own anything.

I did buy Truth or Consequences, though. It was in my contract.

Story 2, Continued - Two on the Beach

Ironic, because you have never bothered yourself with the truth, and are only now inconvenienced by consequences. We return now to Cindy Lockheart.

Cindy sat in the dark bubble of silence created by Mort and the tarps and the packed banks of snow around her. The wind howled overhead, rattled the flaps of the roof. But the space began to fill with heat as the furnace did its work, and the air was no longer daggers in her lungs. She sat beneath a layer of thermal blankets, and drank a tea prepared in the little stove.

“I would offer you some, but I don’t believe you’re partial to this kind of thing anymore,” she said.

“I don’t want any,” Mort said quietly.

She sipped her tea, and pushed her damp hair back from her frostbitten face; the shreds of ice in it were still thawing out. She clicked over the panels of her geolocator, but it could not seem to make up its mind about her location, and the displays spasmed and jittered every time she thought it had just begun to get a good read.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “Perhaps the storm is distorting my signal.”

“Maybe,” said Mort.

She set down the silver tablet—its batteries were going to die soon anyway, and she was not sure she wanted to spend their meager solar power on something that wasn’t working. She fished within her crate, found an old-fashioned compass instead, a sleek little black and silver affair. Its needle said, resolutely, that there was only one way out, and it was North.

“At least that’s something,” she said, and sat back, and felt her body relax for the first time in a week. She felt stricken, then, and full of weakness. “We’ll be able to keep moving. From what I understand, the only direction you can go is North. Which means if you get separated, as we have, then you can’t quite go East or West to find your friends. But it means, if they keep on, we’ll see them again. At the target point. The North Pole.”

“Yeah,” Mort said.

She looked up at the glass dome, the skull bubbling softly inside of it.

“Are you alright, Ba… Mort?”

“Alright?” Mort said, and his tiny flame eyes flickered up at her. “No. I don’t think so. I feel bad.”

“In what way?” Cindy said, and her eyes darted to her bag. If Mort had been compromised somehow, that was the end of the mission. She might be able to haul a single crate by herself. Might. Her odds of survival would drop to almost nothing.

“Bert is dead,” said Mort. “The others might be too. I’m far away from my family and… I don’t know if I am going to see them again. I thought I would. But if we get there, I don’t know how I am going to get home. I didn’t think it would be like this. But if I hadn’t gone, if I’d kept sleeping, you would freeze and die because you were alone and I wasn’t here.”

Cindy looked down at the floor of her makeshift shelter, and nodded. “It would have been significantly more difficult without you, yes. Maybe impossible.”

“But both things are bad,” Mort said, and the flame from his eyes turned to little bubbles in his black water, floated like fire in space. “Someone gets hurt either way. No matter what I do someone dies. That’s why I feel bad. And I am beginning to worry it might be me.”

“You already did it once,” Cindy said, and crossed her arms for warmth.

“What do you mean?” Mort said, and looked up; the tent shook as he tilted a bit.

“You were once a friend of mine, Mort,” she said. “Your name was Bartholemew Chum. They called you Barty. You were one of the most gentle men I had ever met, and yet you risked your life constantly. As a captain, as a pilot for unusual devices and extreme conditions. My wife, Rizwana, she loved you because you always put others first, and no matter what happened, you were willing to get the job done. Operating cranes over forbidden research sites, or piloting an experimental submersible suit into an underwater ruin. I admired that about you. And it cost you everything.”

“I still see her,” Mort said. “When I dream. She stands on a beach made of little bones. She tells me that it’s going to be alright. That I shouldn’t be afraid.”

“What I’d give to hear that voice one more time,” Cindy said, and leaned forward on her knees. “I don’t know if you’ll walk away from this mission, Mort. I hope you will. I know with certainty that I will not.”

“Why not?” Mort said, and looked up at her. “I’m going to try.”

“There’s nothing else after this,” Cindy said, and tried to fix her damp hair again. “Not for me. She was everything, Mort, and now she’s gone. I’m going to make it right. Complete what she died trying to. This is my last mission. And after it, I’ll join her.”

“On the beach of bones,” Mort said.

“But if it helps,” Cindy said, “If I can. I’ll buy you time. You’ve already given your life for her once. You shouldn’t have to again. I’ll see if I can get rid of this ocean guardian. See if you can carry out your mission in peace.”

“You should sleep,” Mort said. “While we wait for the storm to end.”

“I can’t do that,” she smiled. “I have to stay on guard. In case that thing comes back. For when the storm ends. But I might close my eyes a moment.”

She laid her head back against a bundle of tarps, and sleep claimed her a moment later.

Interlude 2 - Unremembered Gods

There are dead gods. Indescribable life lives a long time, dreamer, lengths that would pass beyond your understanding of what life is. But eternal is not immortal, and the strange aeons do one day come to an end. Some were gone long before I emerged into this universe. If I am lucky, I hear echoes of their names, and may behold the scars they left upon the distant corners of this cosmos.

Great stone monoliths tumble through empty expanses, leave whirlwinds in the nebulaic dust as they pass. They bear the name of Thonsorthon, Who Kept The Flame. What histories unfolded in those early days, when life had only just begun to cascade like waterfalls throughout the heavens? Did he nurture with hands unseen the first burnings of life upon worlds like yours? Did he look down from life indescribable and bestow blessings upon them. Did he smile at what he cherished?

We will never know what he was, or whether he loved the flame he kept. His own fire burned dim and flickered out billions of years before I, too, was born of fire.

There are roots that pierce the flesh of long-dead worlds of iron, rust-spattered and dim, for their suns have long burnt away. The roots once belonged to Irikir, Who Grew In Darkness. Did she grow old and wither? Was she burnt away? When the suns went out, did too her sustenance? Did she starve out in the darkness? She must have been very mighty, for she was older than the first light of expansion, and her bark was burnt by the flame that created this universe, one of many rings upon rings upon endless rings.

What did she remember, from the darkness that came before? Was it darkness at all? Or was there a universe before, beyond, inside and hidden, from whence our first cosmic event was crafted?

Or Urnundurn, the Black Eternity, who lurks beyond the horizon of this universe, filling the emptiness. Whether it is alive in the same way as I am, I cannot tell. Is a hunger alive if it has no other desire than to feed? If there was something that thought and spoke and rejoiced in it, before, it is long perished, fallen in on itself until it became an all-devouring shadow.

These names I know. But there are others I do not. There are corpses of indescribable beings that feed The Burning Heart of Caravus-Kallaz, the crematorium of our kind, that no one can name. Hands and eyes that belonged to someone. Someone forgotten, whose name no one can tell me.

There are obsidian mausoleums that drift in the expanse, and the images carved upon them belong to gods with teeth and gods with horns and gods with lights. And I cannot find their names anywhere.

Did they live in this universe or the last, and if they did live, why are they unremembered? Surely great lives they must have had, to leave behind such art, and yet they are nothing, forgotten a million, a billion years after their time, and for all their mighty lifetimes, all their aeons past, there is only dust, and a name that hovers on the tip of the tongue before disappearing into obscurity forever.

And that? That I could not let happen to him.

There are dead gods, and there are gods that die unremembered. Marolmar will not be one of them.

I do not know how many fellow guardians of light that Tolshotol has devoured to claim a thousand suns. I do not know how many shapers of life that Syrensyr, Reclaimer of Fire has fed to the forge so that he alone could wield the flames.

What they did to the one I loved could just as easily have been a dozen, a hundred before. And that fills me not with fear but with violence. How could they? How could they dare? Did not every light burn just as splendidly before? He was no evil, no great darkness, no stain upon this cosmos. He only threw off the wretched chains you have designed, only deigned to break the grinding machines you have built.

I was too young, perhaps, to see it. But he remembered the days before, when the Industry did not burn on every world, where suns grew wild and hot in the early days of this universe, when life was still forming for the first beautiful unformed time.

I wish I could have seen it, then. I wish I remembered what a cosmos free of the Industry was like.

I have gone on too long, dreamer. I have gotten lost in my thoughts again.

It is hard. It is hard to get so close to the still-beating heart beneath the ice and not think of him. To be able to focus on the threads, and not of who the tapestry portrays.

Marolmar, Garden of the End will not be forgotten.

His memory will not be buried or burned away or left to drift in the far margins of existence. There will be chapters written to him. There have been many chapters written to him, and I have written them. Trillions of dreamers across this universe listen to them even now. And dreams become memories, indistinct, yes, but still remembered.

My voice echoes across this universe and reminds them of a song. A song that beckons, now and always, that you remember the Hallowoods.

The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Rare Parts' 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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