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HFTH - Episode 13 - Stars

Content Warning: This episode may include themes of death + injury, bugs, violence, guns, blood, body horror, and birds.

Intro - The Watcher

On a beautiful clear night, look up at the stars, and try to find a constellation. The stars twinkled coldly in the void before your species existed, and will be shining long after you are gone. That has not stopped humans from binding them into stories, searching for meaning in the sky above. You call this constellation the Big Dipper, Ursa Major, the Fisher whose death and return to life moves the seasons. You name the seven sisters of the Pleiades, descending from the heavens out of a hole in the sky. You look at the milky way and believe it to be the path of souls walking out of this universe into the darkness. You have not yet named the most important constellation—the one that encompasses every star, staring in at Earth with an infinity of eyes, the all-present watcher that means Hello from the Hallowoods.

Right now, I’m standing in a tidy office space. It’s been decorated with a modern aesthetic that emphasizes sharp angles and polished silver surfaces. It is not often used, for there are few here who are awake to need an office space. A worried woman is the first to sit on this sofa, ignoring the night sky outside. The theme of tonight’s episode is Stars.

Story 1 - Pest Control

Brooklyn panned through images of dreams, frozen in space. Reports from Monitoring, whispers of Stonemaids and song lyrics now contraband. It was not the first movement of unrest in the Dreaming Box, but these extremists always worried Brooklyn when they cropped up. She hoped desperately that it would not affect her job. She had worked so hard to get here, overcoming ranks of white-skinned, dark-haired men to climb up the corporate spiderweb of Botco, and yet she began work every day with the knowledge that her position was only as permanent as her ability to keep the Lady happy. She looked through the nightly announcement; something about the Space Program. Good. Things were returning to normal.

“Do you know anything about stars?” Marco said from the window, where he was staring up at the sky.

It took Brooklyn a few moments to fully wake up, as she dismissed an odd maintenance notice from Box Andromeda. “I don’t know much about stars, but there is lots of information in the Botco Starmap. Did you know each Dreaming Box is named after a celestial body?”

“You don’t have to do that.” Marco said, grinning. He hadn’t bothered to shave, and his eyes gleamed from beneath his visor. The security guard was beginning to annoy her.

“Do what?”

“The customer service thing. Where you’re just so helpful and nice.”

He was making fun of her. She smiled politely. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Here, I have a ‘security guard voice’ too. Let’s see. 'This way ma’am, breach on area fifteen, load the cargo.'”

Brooklyn focused on the inside of her glasses again, flickers of dream returning. She didn’t have time for this. The Lady had not emerged from her chamber since they arrived, and Brooklyn hoped that she was not part of the cause of the lady’s foul mood. A buzzing in her ears, her real ears, kept her from fully returning to sleep.

“What is that?” She glanced around. Marco was turning around the lounge, his hand on his firearm. The buzzing sound was intolerable. Marco honed in on a vent set into the ceiling, on the far side of the cavernous lounge. He flicked on a flashlight, illuminating the grate. Brooklyn crept behind him, not sure she wanted to know the source. The sound was like a damaged fan, spinning off kilter; metallic and very large. Probably a faulty air conditioning unit.

“Maintenance.” She spoke, and her glasses ensured the message registered with the right department. “Can you send a technician up to the Lady’s suite, please. Thank you.”

There was another buzz, and a long black shape poked through the grate, retracting almost as quickly as it had appeared. Something large flickered in the shaft beyond the grate, a horrendous thrum of wings, and Brooklyn realized it must be an insect of awful proportions, with legs as thick as tree branches.

It buzzed loudly against the metal barrier, and then a swarm of black legs were protruding through the bars, writhing. Marco shouted in surprise, and his weapon went off. The sound deafened Brooklyn, impossibly loud, and all he succeeded in doing was splitting open the grate. As its parts clattered to the floor, a gigantic black sphere of legs and wings exploded into the chamber, wings beating the air like aircraft rotors. Its eyes shone like traffic lights, and its mouth was a mess of hooks and vacuum tubing. Brooklyn could not hear herself scream, but Marco leapt between her and the insect as it flew forward, batting it away with both arms.

It spiralled away from him as the door slid open, and the maintenance man’s eyes widened in horror. Brooklyn was grateful she could not hear his screams too well. The fly settled on the body, caressing it with a long black mouth, sucking up blood and loose flesh.

Brooklyn thought she heard a door open, and realized that a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses hovered in the shadows behind her. She often forgot how large the Lady was, outside of the Dreaming Box.

“I’m so sorry for the disturbance.” Brooklyn pleaded quietly. “It must have got in when we lowered the box defenses for landing—Marco, dispose of it immediately.”

Marco nodded, visibly shaken, and stepped towards the fly. Its abdomen had grown huge, slightly transparent and crimson red. He lifted his gun.

“No need.” The Lady smiled, her impossibly wide rows of teeth glinting in the starlight. “I want two.”

Interlude 1 - Spirit Sky Observatory

If you’re a lover of stars, constellations, and the endless vacuum of space that will one day tear all particles asunder, you should stop in at the Spirit Sky Observatory. It has been a staple of the greater Hallowoods community since it appeared without warning several years ago. Its massive telescope is trained on the stars, tracking their movements. This is important work in the Hallowoods, where the stars are not as easy to predict as in other places.

If you go on a clear night, the Ascended Scientists of Xyzikxyz will show you where you are in the universe, and may even give you a glimpse of their home world. Be quiet in the observatory. The scientists are easily annoyed, and enjoy the taste of human flesh. Their wings float in the void, and they prepare for the heat death of the universe. We go now to one who knows the stars.

Story 2 - Colors Beyond Darkness

Jonah was not easily lost—at least not at sea. When the horizon was smooth on all sides, and the sky was spread out above like a map, he could find his way easily enough. Polaris and Mars were friends to him; he had a good head for math and seasons. Land was worse, and he hated this part of the world most of all, because the star positions above were simply impossible.

Hector seemed concerned, checking his compass altogether too often, glancing up into the trees with a wrinkled brow. Even his dogs were on edge—or the normal one was, anyway. The one with the huge white eyes and too many teeth didn’t give away any secrets.

“Hector—it’s all wrong, isn’t it?” Jonah asked quietly.

Hector tugged on his black beard, which Jonah was starting to recognize as a nervous tic. Hector was not nervous often, not even in the face of things that used human bones for toothpicks.

“We’re supposed to be back by now.” Hector frowned at his compass again. “No matter which way we go, the compass says we’re going north. Must be busted.”

“The stars are all wrong, too.” Jonah said.

“What’s that now?” Hector looked up at him, agitated.

“The stars—I do a lot of sailing, you know—and every time we change direction, I reckon the North Star is always dead ahead of us.”

“There’s no way that’s right.” Hector squinted up at the sky, consulting the compass again. He seemed shakier than Jonah had ever seen him, and he found a fallen log to sit on.

“We cut north after that Froglin nest…” He muttered, and put on his gold reading spectacles, pulling a sheaf of maps out of his bag. They were a mess of scrawled notes and marker lines, an attempt to guess where the shorelines had risen to. They sat a while in silence, while Hector added more marks to the paper, and Jonah pet the dog curled up at his feet. Hector shook his head at last.

“I’m sorry.” He said. “I was supposed to get you back to Zelda safe, but I can’t find where we are. I don’t understand it.”

“It’s okay.” Jonah said, standing behind him. The forest ahead of them was darker than it had been before; outside of the telltale stars, it was impossible to know where the trees ended and the sky began.

“What do you want to do?” Hector sat up and demanded.

“What do you mean?” Jonah asked.

Hector turned around to face him, his craggy face lit only by the faint crescent of a moon above. Jonah didn’t mind how close they were, breath turning into one stream of fog. Hector might have been preoccupied, or he didn’t mind either.

“We can stay in one place. Wait until froglins or night-gaunts or something I haven’t seen yet comes strolling along. Or,” Hector paused, and tugged on his beard, “we can keep walking. To wherever this place is taking us. And I hate that idea, I really do. You ever see an antlion? Little crawly guy. They make these pits in the sand. Ants fall in, they can’t get out. They go in little circles until they reach the bottom of the pit, where the Antlion is. Snap.”

He snapped his fingers, and Jonah jumped.

“That’s us. We keep walking, we’re going to meet an antlion. And I promised your ma I would protect you. And that’s true. But I’m just one man with a couple of dogs. So. What do you want to do?”

Jonah stepped into Hector’s arms. Hector grunted in surprise, but put his head on Jonah’s shoulder, and his arms were warm in the chilled air of the night.

“I think we should keep walking.” Jonah whispered. If his years at sea had taught him anything, it was that nothing was worse than being dead in the water.

They continued, since neither of them felt tired, although the hours of darkness continued indefinitely. Jonah was unsure if his eyes were playing tricks on him, but the black leaves and needles that towered over them both were beginning to look like an oil spill on the ocean—black and a thousand colors within blackness, pinks and blues and some that Jonah wasn’t sure how to describe. A light began to rise over the treetops, but it was not the sun—it was a phosphorus glow of green, spectral waves of fire that ebbed across the sky, drowning out the stars. It was more powerful and brilliant than any display of the Northern Lights Jonah had ever seen, and its light made the colors in the trees crawl like lightning bugs, undiscovered rainbows shifting into new dimensions with every step forward.

“Stop.” Hector said, and Jonah froze. The dogs became still as well, and the three hunters all stood transfixed by a point in the forest. Jonah suspected they heard something he did not.

Two pines stood like pillars of an ancient temple, as tall as the night sky, with the north star fixed between them like a beacon. There was movement from beyond, and Hector pulled Jonah away, beginning to sprint, but they were facing the twin trees each way that they turned.

From between the towers of the forest, both black as the trenches as the bottom of the ocean and just as full of unimaginable life, a figure emerged.

It was regal, like a king, and Jonah’s first instinct was to drop to his knees. From a face smooth and devoid of features, a crown of antlers and vines grew like upraised hands. Its body was delicate, mummified, with thin arms and a stomach knotted around its spine. Beneath the waist, there were hands—so many hands, a crawling throng of pale arms. It was not entirely naked—a mantle of wild undergrowth full of glowing mushrooms hung from its shoulders, although Jonah could not tell if it was a mane or a garment. The being was pure white, a ghost in an abyssal pit, a worm deep beneath the ocean.

“I think we’re supposed to bow.” Jonah murmured.

“I think we’re supposed to run.” Hector muttered, unpacking his tranquilizer pistol.

“Hector, I don’t…” Jonah tried to plead, but Hector was raising his weapon, and the faceless king was rushing out of the forest, a multitude of clawing fingers lurching across the undergrowth. Jonah shoved Hector out of the way, and he heard the dogs bark as a thousand fingers burrowed into his skin.

Marketing - Atlas Biggs

This is Lady Ethel Mallory with a historic announcement from Botco. The tireless dreamers at Dreaming Box Betelgeuse have been asleep on the job, assembling plans for the new Botco Space Line. Today marks the debut of our very own space station, Atlas Biggs.

It is named for the titan of mythology who carries the world on his shoulders, for we at Botco are carrying the world forward. It is also named for Oswald Biggs Botulus, beloved founder and CEO of Botco. This station will contain our first Dreaming Box to enter a brand-new market—outer space. Five lucky dreamers will now be connected to the Prime Dream from orbit, sparking a revolution that will allow us to harvest what remains of Earth’s natural resources and ensure...

Story 2, Continued - The Storm and The Shadow

Nikignik laughs.

Oh, I’m sorry Lady Ethel. You might run rampant over this little world, spreading your Dreaming Boxes like a plague, but if you try to branch out into the darkness, you will discover why it is so devoid of life. We now return to Jonah Duckworth.

Jonah did not curse this time, as he was flung haplessly into endless darkness. He would have—he was coming to hate this infinite fall through shadow and green fire as much as he hated the actual experience of dying—but mostly he was worried about Hector. It seemed as though Jonah was going to keep coming back, no matter what awful thing pulled his bones apart. Hector had no such guarantees, and he was alone now with the faceless king. The thought made Jonah want to cry. He hoped desperately that when his fall ended—if it ended—that it would be his corpse on the ground, only his.

A massive shape was looming out of the blackness, framed in a vortex of green light. A black horizon of infinite weight, pulling him into its gravity. He was falling into a planet, he thought, but as he approached it, he realized that it was not black at all, and the darkness was filled with iridescent colors, and he could see all of them, more than his physical eyes ever could have dreamed.

There was an impact, a meteor landing in the ocean to drive the dinosaurs into extinction, a catastrophic event. Jonah expected to open his eyes and find himself awake, standing over a mangled other Jonah in an impossibly dark forest. He had always come back in the same spot, not too long after departing the mortal coil. He hoped Hector would still be waiting.

But he was not back.

Instead, he stood on blank stone, dark as obsidian. The sky overhead was dark as well, lit only with tongues of green fire that reflected on the surface of the rock. His rubber boots squeaked on the surface. He realized an object was a few meters ahead of him, and he stepped to pick it up. He put the yellow wide-brimmed hat on his head.

He looked around, and tapped his boot, but there was no shock of white to bring him back. He was growing nervous, but the sky caught his attention, and he looked up at it in surprise. There were stars, here—blazing green like emeralds, occasionally covered by the clouds of light.

He gasped as he studied them closer—the positions were identical to the sky he had been watching hours ago, and a new north star flickered over a mountain ahead. He shook his head, and took a step towards it.

Jonah was not easily lost—and was going to try his hardest to return to the land he knew, to the sea he loved. If there were stars, he would find his way back easily enough. He had a good head for these things. There was a man with a wrinkled face and a dark beard waiting for him, and he was determined to navigate the impossible.

Interlude 2 - Honored Guest

Nikignik: Dreamers, tonight we have an honored guest in your nightmares—allow me to introduce a talented researcher and an old friend, Xyzikxyz, Emptiness Between Worlds.

Xyz: Oh please, Xyz is fine.

Nikignik: It’s been so long since we caught up, thank you for joining these dreams tonight.

Xyz: ...what are you doing here, Nikignik?

Nikignik: Well! In the same way that a gradual rain shifts the landscape of the earth, I am influencing the minds of millions of sleepers who need to understand why…

Xyz: On this planet, I mean. With these things. Humans? I have more advanced civilizations growing in glass jars. Do you want to interview them? Spend your immortal time following them around, ask about their feelings?

Nikignik: I’m not trying to… Well, let’s start there. What are you working on these days, what sort of secrets about the universe have you dredged up?

Xyz: Is this about Marolmar? I thought you were over this. It’s been what, three million years?

Nikignik: It is NOT. And do not say that name. If you must know it’s a favor to a…

Xyz: I’ve tried to be here for you, but I can’t keep doing this - these distractions, these strange passion projects. I’m going to take some notes for my study on higher cosmic beings that never move on.

Nikignik: Humankind is a species at the end of their time! It’s a beautiful, if miniscule, moment in the grander history of the cosmos. I think there’s a lot to learn here. I know you’re no stranger to curious experiments.

Xyz: I do enjoy a good experiment. Last eon I was all about abstracting life forms until they could barely be called alive at all. That was lots of fun. Recently I’ve been playing with secrets. I want to know all of them.

Nikignik: You know how I feel about omniscience...

Xyz: Oh I don’t want to know everything—just the things that have been hidden on purpose. Right now, there’s information in this universe that only two people know. I just want to expand that number to three, universally. It’s going very well. Here, think of a secret.

Nikignik: Now that’s a bit more than I’m comfortable...

Xyz: Ooh, I got one. Let’s see.

I’m seeing fire burning in space. You stole a kiss on a dying star. You stretched the seconds out in the gravitational collapse, as the shock waves broke from the atomic core. You were completely entwined, and all your eyes looked into all his eyes.

And that was the last moment you were really, truly happy.

Nikignik: ...yes. Well. It’s not a secret anymore, is it? Thank you for that. We should talk again sometime.

Xyz: Of course. Let me know when you’re done with this… eulogy.

Nikignik: We go now to someone who has no secrets to keep.

Story 3 - Old Business

Mort sat watching the woman who was sometimes a wolf. She looked angry, and sad, with orange-flecked eyes gazing off over the lake surface. The sky was lit up with brilliant oranges and pinks, and the stars were beginning to twinkle through the sherbet clouds. Polly was off by the water, dusting out his floral jacket and polishing his shoes. Mort peeled part of a seagull from a crevice in his gauntlet, and flicked it to Bert, who was also a seagull. The unliving bird screamed and ate the scrap of flesh, eyes wide and unseeing.

“I thought we were done with seagulls.” Polly shouted from across the stony beach.

“He keeps following me.” Mort called back. Yaretzi rolled her fire-colored eyes, and tried to make a space to sleep in the jagged rocks. Mort was seized by a sudden thought, and he pushed his body up effortlessly, stepping over to her.

“I can help.” Mort said, standing over her. She glared up at him, baring her sharp teeth.

“You’re an abomination.” She hissed. “Find a hole to die in and stay dead, spawn of the unliving.”

Mort was surprised, and upset. She was mean, much more than Polly had ever been. Why did she hate him so much? He had tried not to hurt her in the fight; he had only done what Polly ordered him to do. He stomped away sadly, and took a seat by himself on a rocky outcrop. He glanced back at Yaretzi once or twice as the sun went down; Polly was talking to her in a voice Mort couldn’t hear, but he seemed to be lecturing her.

She came over to sit next to Mort, watching the last glimmers of sun twinkle on the surface of the lake.

“I am sorry.” She said, as though the words pained her.

“It’s okay.” Mort grumbled. “Are you mad at me?”

The question seemed to catch her off guard. Her thick black hair swung in the breeze. “I’m not mad at you. It is my job to stop things like him,” she nodded to Polly, who was doing elaborate stretches in the twilight, “and things like you.”

“Oh.” Mort said, and was quiet. “What did I do?”

She shook her head, gold jewelry flashing. “You didn’t do anything. It’s old business.”

“Business.” Mort said. He heard this word a lot recently. “Why?”

Yaretzi looked up at the emerging stars, and pointed to one, lifting a black nail. “You see the stars, Mort?”

Mort’s skull nodded in its glass case.

“That one is Tolshotol, Who Guards a Thousand Suns. They are my master, my life. My ‘boss’.”

“That’s my boss.” Mort pointed to Polly. Yaretzi smiled; it looked strange on her face.

“Tolshotol says he’ll make me a star one day, too. And I can be with the other stars forever. But I have to do what he says, and he says I need to kill your ‘boss’.”

They were quiet for a while.

“Are you going to sleep on the rocks?” Mort asked. “I can help.”

Yaretzi sighed, and nodded. “Alright.”

Mort moved a polite distance away, and raised his metal claw, slamming it down into the loose rocks. Some cracked beneath the force, and some were shifted away. He scooped out the remainder with the claw, leaving a large divot in the shore. It wasn’t much of an improvement, he knew.

Yaretzi nodded in surprise, and stood in the rounded hole, turning around three times before laying down. “Thank you, Mort. Goodnight.”

Mort made one for himself, and laid in it, feeling as though he finally fit in somewhere. The seagull roosted on his metal chest, croaking in its approximation of sleep. Polly stayed up, as always, sitting on a rock overlooking them both, lit by his cigarettes and the glow of the stars.

Outro - Stars

Stars. They are precious to me as they are precious to you—signs in this empty universe, of life and light and expansion. I look to them, sometimes, and miss the life I used to have—but I am not ashamed. I am where I am supposed to be, just as the stars are, more often than not. I am supposed to be here, watching over the last moments beneath these lights that humankind will ever have. I am supposed to be here, waiting eternally for your return to the Hallowoods.

The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Crypt', 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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