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HFTH - Episode 127 - Hooks



Content warnings for this episode include: Ableism, Animal death (birds, fish, gods?), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Freezing to death, eaten alive by Jackalopes, Many metaphors about hooks in skin and eyeballs and so forth




Intro - The Outside Calls

You thought you could leave. It was not that you wanted to, at first, but you believed that you had the option. You were not trapped if it was you that was choosing to stay. But from the outside, it seemed so much better within, and now that you are here you miss the outside again, and there is no rhyme or reason to it except that now you feel trapped.


Nothing has changed. You are still in a comfortable box, the same you have ever been. Only now, you imagine the sky, and it taunts you. You picture yourself walking on the earth, and it tears you. You fantasize about the taste of the air and it destroys you. The box has not changed, but you have changed in it. The world outside has its hooks in you, and the more you resist its pull, the more it rips through your skin, shreds your spirit, drags you piece by piece into a world that screams Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now, I sit in a ramshackle house. It is hammered together from plywood and sheet metal and felled logs. It is loosely comprised of mother and children. It is not sound structurally or emotionally, and yet, none of its occupants can escape what is to come. The theme of tonight’s episode is Hooks.



Story 1 - Family Meeting

“Everyone, can you please settle in for the family meeting,” Mrs. Wicker called, but she was ignored as usual; children thumped around upstairs, children played on the floor downstairs, children walked on the ceiling.


“Listen up everyone!” shouted Jocelyn, “let’s get this family meeting started please! Jacob, Josh, get down here! Jed, Joel, sit on actual chairs. Johannah, get down from the ceiling with those sandals.”


“Thank you Jocelyn,” said Mrs. Wicker. Her children, the eight that remained, clustered around the long dining table, which was made from half the trunk of a black pine, split down the middle. It was all that would be long enough to seat the entire Wicker family comfortably.


Johannah was the last to sit, stepping down the wall to the bench.


“Johannah, give me those sandals,” Mrs. Wicker said. “They don’t belong to you and they will have to go back to Mrs. Buckley.”


“She didn’t ask for them back,” Johannah said rebelliously.


“She almost certainly did not mean for you to keep them,” said Mrs. Wicker. “Now that Johannah is home, I think it is time for a family meeting. Jocelyn, how is Jessica?”


“She’s teething again,” said Jocelyn. “She’s been up every night crying. But she is eating better, and that rash is clearing up.”


“Good,” said Mrs. Wicker. “Joel, Jedediah, how is your schoolwork coming along?”


The two looked at each other. The only thing her thirteen and ten year olds agreed on was shirking responsibilities.


“Mom, they’ve been really worried about Johannah,” Jocelyn began.


“I want to hear it from them,” said Mrs. Wicker. “Boys? Have you been completing your maths? English? Bible studies?”


“We could do it better,” mumbled Joel.


“We will do it better, now that Johannah is back,” said Jedediah. “I kept trying to do school, but I just kept watching the forest instead. In case she came back.”


Mrs. Wicker tightened her grip on the table edge, a white knuckling that did not escape the attention of Jed or Joel or Jocelyn. She breathed, and relaxed. No rod for today. Other days, yes, there would be time to start enforcing discipline around here again. But today was a day for celebrating Johannah’s return. Baby Jessica made a long whistling noise from her high chair at the end of the table.


“We will work on that over the next few weeks,” she said. “We will try and get you caught up. I may send you over to Mrs. Crenshaw’s house to sit in the group lessons she does with her children.”


“I hate Mrs. Crenshaw,” said Jedediah. “Her kids are rude and she smells like cabbage.”


“That is called a consequence of your own making, and it is better than any consequence of mine,” said Mrs. Wicker. “Johannah, are you sure you’re alright? Since coming back you seem a little quieter than before.”


“I’m fine, mom,” Johannah said. Jocelyn looked at her, and raised her eyebrows, mouthed a few words. Johannah shrugged, and Jocelyn turned to her.


“Johannah’s been having nightmares again,” she said.


“I thought those stopped last year,” Mrs. Wicker said.


“They’re more about the library,” Johannah grunted, under the scrutiny of seven siblings. “And being lost in the woods. And…”


“You can share whatever you would like,” Mrs. Wicker said. “That’s what family meeting is for.”


“I had friends while I was there,” Johannah said. “There was a boy from the Scoutpost named Russell, and a dead boy named Al.”


“I’m so sorry if they hurt you or scared you,” she said.


“It’s not that,” said Johannah. “I’m worried about them. I don’t know if they got home like I did, or whether they’re stuck.”


“You’d remember Russell, mom,” said Jacob. “He’s the kid I rescued when I shot that froglin at the Scoutpost.”


“Trust that God will lead them to the right places,” said Mrs. Wicker, “The same way that he led you home.”


“I’ll try,” said Johannah.


“Joshua, Jacob, how is Fort Freedom running?” she said. Her two oldest sons looked to each other, then back to her, and nodded.


“Pretty good,” said Joshua.


“Yeah, alright,” said Jacob.


She waited for a few moments, and when nothing else forthcame, raised her eyebrows.


“No luck finding another Frogsticker,” said Joshua helpfully.


“I mean, how are our people? There is a food crisis. Illness. We’re low on fire materials.”


“Yeah, all that’s still true,” said Jacob, and crossed his arms.


“Nobody’s happy,” said Joshua. “Or well fed.”


“But,” said Jacob, and shifted his bad leg, which she really felt he was milking for all it was worth, “they’re doing okay. The Evans are doing daily hunts on the Hallowoods outskirts, and we’ve managed to use rabbits to lure out three-eyed deer. The Kinsleys have started farming reekshrooms, which are gross but better than nothing. Nobody is doing good, but everyone’s getting by. It really stepped up while you were gone.”


“Gone?” said Mrs. Wicker. “I haven’t been gone.”


The table was silent. Eight pairs of eyes stared at her, including the baby.


“What?” she said. “I’ve been here. I’ve just been preoccupied with your sister, getting her home safe. Working with the church has been very consuming.”


They all looked down, except for Johannah, who raised her eyebrows.


“Is the family meeting over?” Johannah said.


“No,” said Mrs. Wicker, and put both her hands on the table. “This is a family meeting. We can discuss our problems, openly. Whatever it is, we talk about it. We don’t hide anything behind closed doors.”


“You’ve been gone,” said Jocelyn, who was crying now, as she was prone to do. She rubbed at her nose with her hands. “You’ve definitely been gone. You were here, sometimes, but you were still gone. And I know that you were worried about Johannah. But there were seven of us who needed you too. And all that work and all that pressure has been on us to keep this household—to keep Fort Freedom, really—running.”


Mrs. Wicker breathed out a strained sigh, and stared at the ceiling, tapped her fingers on the table. Lord give me the strength, she thought, not to speak in anger. The Lord did not give her the strength.


“Would you rather I had just left Johannah?” she said. “To die? Is that what you wanted?”


Jocelyn could be so selfish, so entitled. You turned seventeen and thought you knew everything, thought the whole world revolved around you and how much responsibility you had and…


“It was before I ran away, too,” said her precious Johannah. Mrs. Wicker looked over at her.


“What?”


“Before I left,” she repeated, and looked down at the table. “You were still gone at your new church all the time. It’s like you would rather be there than with us.”


Mrs. Wicker sighed, and fixed a wayward strand of her hair, and looked up to all her children.


“I understand it may seem that way,” she said. “But I have been investing my time with them because I believe this new church is our future. Your future. But I won’t be away from you anymore. You’ll come with me. The Vicar has personally invited you all to attend the weekly service at the Church of the Hallowed Name.”




Interlude 1 - Dangerous Homes

You may think, dreamer, surely there is treasure all around us, waiting to be found! Generations of families leaving their worldly possessions to join their nearest Dreaming Box, abandoning all this for the taking. Even those that remained, raiders and scavengers, could not have pilfered everything, can not have stripped clean every house. Yes, there is a world of opportunity for someone with a creative mind and a crowbar.


Be wary, dreamer, if you spot in the suburbs of one more desolate city a house that appears pristine. Windows intact, paint unchipped, fences unbroken. It is tempting to think it might have been overlooked by years of increasingly infrequent passersby, but be cautious. Too many much like yourself, with similar crowbars, have hopped over that fence, tread upon those garden steps. They have crept up those front porch stairs, and ever so delicately tried the handle to find the crowbar unnecessary, the door unlocked.


The second mistake is stepping inside. Shutting the door gingerly behind you to find a house untouched by the years, a pleasant hallway, lamps and rugs. You might think first to go for the kitchen and see what lies in their larder. You might notice, in the beautiful hallway, a bad smell. By then it is already too late.


Sometimes it is raiders who have come before and wish to thin out the deadly competition. Sometimes it is families who wished vengeance on any who would come to take their things while they dream.


But there are houses with razor wire in laces at ankle height stretched across the halls, with rugs that fall in to spike-filled cages in the cellar, bear traps hidden at the back of a pantry, tripwires that set crossbows in motion and fishing hooks that hang at the level of your eye. Never open a door you are uncertain of. And never let them swing shut behind you, lest you join the trove of failed thieves beneath the floors.


We go now to one who loves to set traps.



Story 2 - The Life You Stole

Mr. Raven did not much enjoy being confined. He had grown used to it, of course, living in the grey little box underground that was the CPE Institute. But there always was the itch to move, to escape. It had manifested quite suddenly when he requested that they chase a glaring, and most definitely certified, paranormal entity north. He had a mild curiosity in what was so powerful, traveling in a campervan across the United States. The curiosity had soured when he found that the entire region was radiating, boiling, pulsating with CPE’s. And now, arms tied to his back, dangling from a hook that kept his narrow feet ever so slightly off the ground, blood and dirt encrusted, he had only one wish and it was to go back to the box.


“How are you making out, Mr. Writingdesk?” he said. “Are you awake?”


“I’m awake,” said Mr. Writingdesk, voice slurred. He was a large man, and the position in which he was tied seemed to give him trouble breathing. It came out as a labored whistle that stopped for tens of seconds at a time.


“Does it hurt?” said Mr. Raven. “I know we’re both burned all over, but they burned your shoulder in particular when they removed that spike.”


“Yeah it hurts,” mumbled Mr. Writingdesk.


“What do you think they intend to do with us?” said Mr. Raven. His eyebrows itched, but especially the one all cut up from the shrapnel of his own exploding weapon. “Surely they don’t just plan to leave us to dry out in the larder like garlic strings.”


Mr. Writingdesk looked up to the other things hanging around them, which included long chains of dried herbs and garlic, and several suspended corpses, shriveled and brown like jerky.


“I suppose you’re right,” said Mr. Raven, and looked down at the floor, which he could barely touch. “But don’t you worry, my dear, when they…”


Mr. Raven turned a very pallid color; it had slipped out unawares. Thankfully, Mr. Writingdesk seemed not to be coherent enough to notice. Unfortunately, Mr. Writingdesk seemed not to be coherent enough to listen to the plan either, but he had to try anyway.


“When they come to check on us again, our plan. Our plan goes into action. And then we’re both going to be out of here, and everything will be fine. Now, tell me what the plan is so I know you understand.”


“Ugh,” said Mr. Writingdesk, and laboriously lifted his head to look at the door. His shirt was open, but still bloodied, and he’d had some kind of compress of mud and crushed grass applied to the blackened wound where they’d burnt him shut. “They open the door. You’ve kicked a broom over. Door pushes broom into… ah.”


“The door pushes the broom into the bucket, yes,” said Mr. Raven. “And then? Tell me the rest.”


“Yeah,” said Mr. Writingdesk, and was silent for a few moments while Mr. Raven waited expectantly for his words. “Mr. Raven, go home.”


“What?” said Mr. Raven.


“If you get out of here,” said Mr. Writingdesk. “Go home. They’re all still trapped in there. We were only going to be gone a few weeks. They’re going to need air and feeding, and make sure the power’s on…”


“Mr. Writingdesk you and I will both be returning to the Institute posthaste after we make our getaway,” said Mr. Raven. “The containment of our other CPE’s is hardly the first thing to worry about. Start with your own safety.”


Mr. Writingdesk was silent for a minute, which Mr. Raven rejected.


“For god’s sake, you’re going to be alright,” said Mr. Raven. “You’ve been impaled by class-2 specters. The necrosis was worse than this. You’ve lost a little blood, yes, but blood can be replenished. I forbid you from retiring and leaving me alone to tend our Institute.”


Mr. Writingdesk was still silent, which incensed Mr. Raven, but before he could speak again, tell Mr. Writingdesk to stop being a lackadaisical abandonist, to keep kicking, to keep fighting, to keep acting like he had back when Raven and Writingdesk and Riddle fought and contained all the evils they ever encountered, there was a scraping at the door, and a squeak of the handle.


“Now,” whispered Mr. Raven, and looked greedily to the door, “watch me work.”


The door swung open, and it did indeed jostle the broom he’d managed to kick across the room. The broom jutted into a bucket, which caused the wire it was hung from to bounce, kicking a rusty garden rake near the wall over. It was a heavy rake, with a head of hammered metal, which bounced off a hanging corpse as it fell. The corpse was light by now, dried to skin and bone, and it rocked on its frayed string, back a few inches into the wall of corroded butcher tools, and five or six came free of the wall, scattering across the floor.


Mr. Raven had made one fatal error in trajectory, however; a heavy butcher knife overshot its mark, and came spinning for his bootless feet. He yelped as it hit with a thud, and peered down to find that it quivered in the ground between his big toes. He looked up to the door, where a girl he was familiar with stood, hair braided and full of odd little objects, grey cloak wrapped around her shoulders, a white dress. She stared at the knife, and then looked up to him.


“Keep quiet,” she whispered. “I’m going to let you both free.”



Marketing - The Hook

Lady Ethel:

You’re never going to believe what happened today!


That’s an example of a strong, engagement-generating opening line. That’s the kind of thing you want to lead your content with. You have to snag attention in the very beginning, and then once you’ve got it, you can return to a normal pace. Then, indicate that there is reason to keep watching. For instance, despite my lesson, something very interesting did happen today.


That’s part of retaining the interest. When you find out what happened to me today, you will be so shocked and upset, yet slightly proud. Whatever will get people to keep the content going instead of skipping off to wherever their attention span takes them next, and that is a shorter and shorter number each year.


And then it’s finally time for the content, about when you reach the end of your message and you can’t drag it out any more. But it’s a mistake to just deliver the value, in this case, the satisfaction of knowing what did happen to me today. You begin the end with the first offer, which is that if you continue to sleep at a regular time and open your mind, you’ll get to hear more exciting things like the bizarre thing that happened to me today. If you love hearing strange and unbelievable stories, your nightly dreaming to Lady Ethel Mallory’s live vlogumentary is all you need to do. We love delivering wild stories just like this one. And then when you close the message, remind them again, that there is always more content just like this available if you follow and subscribe and… do whatever your call to action is.


As for what did happen to me today? That’s just an example. I’m walking through Minnesota north of Minneapolis. What do you think could have happened to me? Nothing. Nothing interesting at all. It’s all small trees and flat horizons and rotted-away burger cabins. It could just as well be anywhere else in this country. Why are there no people? Where are the cities? I suppose I’m the one to blame for that, me and Oswald and Anderson, emptying the world. My God am I tired of walking…



Story 2, Continued - The Life You Stole

You think that’s dull? I was trapped in a dark room for a thousand years. You learn to live with it. Be grateful you can walk beneath a changing sky and feel the cold rush of winter air in your lungs. Perhaps use that air to breathe instead of speak next time.


We return now to… Mr. Raven.


It was not until he had been released from the rope that he was suspended by, hands cut free with the butcher knife, and had seen to it that Mr. Writingdesk had been similarly relieved, that Mr. Raven spoke, and he did so as he pulled his boots and coat on from the nails where they hung.


“Is it a trap?” he whispered. “Are they waiting for us outside, to try and escape? Are they going to filet us? Eat us? Save us for the spring?”


“No,” said CPE-13. “It was my sister’s idea to let you follow me here, so we could catch you and make you pay. She wants to kill you. Very slowly. It’s because she loves me, and you’re terrible. The Coven wants to kill you because you’ve seen where they live and because you’re exactly the kind of men that they hate. But I suppose it’s your lucky day.”


Mr. Raven paced back to Mr. Writingdesk, who was breathing better, and knelt beside him, slid the man’s sleeve up his meaty arm to check his pulse.


“I don’t understand,” said Mr. Raven. “You’ve decided to return with us to the Institute, is that it? I did warn you that it’s become a frightening place out here. Don’t worry. If you come quietly, we won’t have to restrict your entertainment options and you will not be grounded.”


“I’m not going with you,” said CPE-13, and crossed her arms. “Neither is my sister. Or any of us, or any thing that lives in this forest. You’re going to drive home, and be thankful that I gave you your life tonight, and you are going to release every person and thing that you’ve trapped in the Institute. And you’re going to do it because I told you to when I saved your life.”


“Bah,” said Mr. Raven, and caught a sharp glance from her. Mr. Writingdesk’s pulse was satisfactory, although he lingered with the wrist a little. “You have the rare privilege of having been in the Institute, CPE-13. You know exactly how dangerous the entities we keep in there are. Obviously you understand why we cannot pour them back out into the world.”


“I scream, once,” said CPE-13, “and a dozen witches come in here to use your eyebrows for potion ingredients. Now, I would like you to accept this deal. I would like you to live. But I’m not known be very lucky, I suppose.”


Mr. Raven scratched at his eyebrows protectively.


“Very well,” he said.


“Swear to it,” she said.


“I’m sorry?”


“Promise me,” she said, and came to kneel next to him. She was frail of frame, but so was he. Mr. Writingdesk watched through half-lidded eyes. She jabbed a pinky in Mr. Raven’s face. “Promise me that you’ll stop following me, and go home, and set everyone free.”


Mr. Raven frowned at her finger, and stuck out his knobbly one, and hooked it with hers. “I promise I shall do exactly that, CPE-13.”


“Penny,” she frowned, and released his hand, glided for the door. “When you think of me in the future, when you feel thankful that you are still alive, I want you to remember that my name was Penny.”


She paused once more, as Mr. Raven hauled Mr. Writingdesk to his feet; the big man was standing on his own now, getting his footing. Mr. Raven could not carry much of him from beneath his arm, but he’d do all he could. He looked up to find her standing in front of them both.


“You don’t have long,” she said. “I think my luck will help you, up until you leave the coven. But after that? I can’t control if they track you down. I can’t control what will happen to you if I ever see you again. So don’t test it. If I owe you anything for raising me, that debt is paid now. Your life given for the one you stole. Goodbye, George.”


She stooped in, and squeezed Mr. Writingdesk’s hand once, before releasing it. She glared at Mr. Raven.


“Goodbye, Atticus.”


Mr. Raven frowned. Had he ever spoken it with her present? Or had she guessed? With that, she turned, and disappeared into the moonlight beyond. Mr. Raven was not far behind, helping Mr. Writingdesk step by step, as the circulation returned to his limbs. The air was freezing; the moon pale, and the forest beyond was dark. They would have precious few minutes to steal out unnoticed, and even then, these CPE’s had abilities that most did not, to track and hunt and kill. But if they made it back to the car, got Mr. Writingdesk the help he needed, got to the rest of their gear… my God, he thought. The way that they’re going to pay will be worth it.



Interlude 2 - Hungry Gods

How bold of your kind, dreamer, to sit in your island of ignorance amidst of black seas of infinity, and contemplate a voyage. Casting a silver line of thread out into the dark ocean of night that surrounds you, curious as to what you might catch. These warnings were not because you may not be able to comprehend the depths to which you plunge, nor because there is knowledge written that was not transcribed for you. It is because in any ocean, there is unknowable and forgotten life, and this ocean is very, very large.


I see it all, dreamer. The life that lurks beneath the black veneer, watching, waiting for anything small to swim by. Young gods in their infancy vanish instantly, only ripples to tell where they have gone. Some gods, ancient and hungry, are not afraid to cannibalize their own.


No one in the Council of Heavens, of course. When they kill, they prefer to do it publicly.


Do not dangle your hook in the heavens, unless you are prepared to drag home whatever you have tempted with a mere morsel. It will be looking for a feast. And yet, the Botulus Corporation even now winds up and prepares to cast.


We go now to one who dreams of starlight.



Story 3 - A Quiet Place to Rest

Riot was not sure where she had found herself exactly, but it was dark and warm and comfortable. She opened her eyes, but there was only shadow around her, not frightening because it was unseen, but gentle because it did not hurt her eyes. She stretched, and yawned, and crossed her arms comfortably. After days spent on the run, frantic and broken, knitted back together by Olivier’s frightening magic, halfway starving, the break was more than welcome. She was exhausted; had been exhausted for a week.


“Riot?” a voice echoed, and she winced, and ignored it. Was a little rest too much to ask for?


“Riot,” it said again, much closer now, and she looked over to find a girl she recognized standing in the dark. She had brown hair, a little less frizzy than it used to be, and was wearing pajamas with little eyes on them, and looked at Riot with a bit of a shocked expression.


“Hi Danielle,” Riot said, and half-smiled. “Is there something you need?”


“Riot?” Danielle said, and drew closer, as if careful with every step. “What’s wrong?”


“For once nothing is,” Riot said, and gestured to her lounging body. “Or at least it wasn’t until you came to bother me. No offense.”


“You’re asleep,” Danielle said slowly, eyes wide. She seemed so anxious. “But you’re not dreaming. You’re always dreaming. You’re a very good dreamer.”


“I can fix that, if you let me rest,” Riot said, and closed her eyes, and breathed a sigh of relief. Much better.


Danielle poked her hard in the cheek, and Riot opened an eye.


“Ow.”


“Wake up,” Danielle said, looming over her head. “Riot, you need to wake up right now.”


“I am awake,” Riot muttered. “Thanks to you. I’d like not to be.”


“No you’re not,” Danielle whispered, and put her hands on Riot’s shoulder, began shaking her. “You’re not awake. What happened to you? What happened to the bear?”


“The bear?” Riot said, tried to throw Danielle’s hands off, was only mildly successful. “There's no bear. The bear crushed me. Olivier performed like, magic field medicine, and I’m pretty sure she got my ribs wrong. And then we were running, out onto the ice, and the bear… floop!”


She made a gesture with a hand, limply.


“What does floop mean?” said the girl in the darkness.


“Floop,” Riot intoned. “The thing got ‘im. Creepy. Creepily. But then it was going to get us, and Olivier went full storm mode.”


She winced at the ceiling, but there was no ceiling.


“Wake up,” Danielle said, and shook her.


“I remember the storm,” Riot said. “It was huge. I’ve never seen Olivier do one that size.”


“Wake up,” Danielle said again.


“And I was proud, at first, but I don’t think she can control it,” Riot continued, retracing a path of footprints through the snow in her thoughts. “She’s gone. And the blizzard was going and going, and I was walking, and…”


“Wake up,” Danielle screamed, and shoved her so hard that Riot fell, tumbled headfirst into the blackness, was thrown out into the blazing hot-cold dark-white world, a blizzard raging around her, hands so cold they were numb all the way through, breath hard-fought to pull into her lungs.


A dozen little creatures darted away from her body as she awoke on the ice—the bodies of little white rabbits, tiny antlers jutting mismatched from their skulls, sharp incisors that matched the red scratches in her frigid skin. She screamed, and shook herself awake, and stumbled to her feet, pulled her coat tight around her for all the good it did. She could still not see anything; the wind roared in all directions around her, and carried with it a tumbling flurry.


I have to stay awake, she thought. I have to keep walking. And as she began to stumble forward, a thought occurred to her, and for the first time, she did not question it: I am never going to make it home.



Outro - Hooks

Hooks. The early bird gets the worm. The early bird gets snared on the string, beak pierced through with metal. The early bird gets reeled in, turn by turn, and plucked from the line, and fed to the bird-catchers cats. Thus, there is no pressure to be an early bird.


Be late. Sleep long into the morning, and when you wake eat your fill. Take care of the fragile form that you have been placed in by the cosmos, while you have it. It is easily torn, and not made for much suffering.


There is no hurry, and never has been. Galaxies bloom in million-year spans, and planets require a billion years to so much as change their face. In a universe so vast, no one will notice if you take a day to yourself. No one will notice your lifetime at all.


Free from those barbs of importance, what will you do? What sort of life will you live in these untethered margins? Until the closing line, dreamer, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting ensnarily for your return to the Hallowoods.



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