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HFTH - Episode 131 - Chasms



Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Dogsmell as usual), Death + Injury, Yet More People Made Out Of Human Skin, Bugs, Alice is Full of Fireflies, Strangulation/suffocation, Body horror, Waking from a Coma, Car Crashes



Intro - Hard Fall

You did not see it coming. You did not even feel it. Most days, you can sense when the ice grows thin beneath your feet. It has a different texture under the boot. It tells you, ever so subtly, what is coming. The firm packed crunch of the deep ice wells, the thin creak of the fragile hollow.


But not today.


Today every sign told you the ice was firm, that you could continue as you always do, and yet, the last step you took was a plunge. Splinters of ice and snow flew around you, drowned out the light, and then with a sudden impact entombed you.


And you have been stuck ever since. You can feel the relentless pressure around you, as heavy as the earth itself, crushing the air from your lungs, refusing to give it back. Now you can only wait as the oxygen runs out, as the black ocean seeps through the ice, as somewhere far south a forest begins to greet the new age with a Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now I soar through a dying storm. The wind has begun to fail, the bleak white vortex to still ever so slightly. It will take time for the gyre of nature to slow now that it has been set in motion. Through the chaos flies a girl, and a broom, and a boy, and a dog, searching for a grave. The theme of tonight’s episode is Chasms.



Story 1 - A Girl and a Ghost

It felt like a lifetime had passed since Percy had seen Clara, and not a pleasant lifetime at that. She had helped to kill his father. She had unbound his mother from the earth. It had only been months, the better part of a year, since then, and yet Clara seemed years older than she had before. Her eyes were sunken, lifeless, staring out at the end of some voyage beyond the brink of exhaustion. He supposed he was on one of his own.


The hound he was fond of, and it flew on the other side of her broomstick, through the great gusts of the torrential blizzard. The broomstick he remembered too, and was fascinated by and terrified of in equal measure. There was something uncanny in the way it cut through the air; he had thought so since she showed up in the firestorm that consumed his father’s house, since she had taken Riot for a ride and broken up with her and he’d never heard the end of Clara after that. It was news that he had resented her for at the time; Riot was hurt, of course, and of course he was on her side. But he wondered now who had been in the wrong, if anyone had been in the wrong. Thought that maybe sometimes things just happened.


That was what Percy thought about as he hurtled unbound through the winter storm, keeping pace with a girl in a black cloak flying on a broomstick.


“Are you here for Riot?” he said. He barely had to whisper, and yet her head tilted toward him as they plummeted through a whirling pool of white. It was all he could think of to start a conversation. She did not respond, though. Not at first.


“Or did they send you?” Percy said. His words were a dagger, he knew, but no one was going to bleed for very long now. “The Library. That’s all that Olivier was told, apparently. That he was supposed to come here for them.”


“They’re both out here?” said the girl, her voice trembled. Something was terribly wrong with her, Percy thought. But then again, that was true of him too.


“I’m not sure where they are,” Percy said. “If they’re okay. We all got split up, and things work differently up here. Space forgets itself.”


“It’s called Indie radiation,” Clara said, an unyielding knife cutting through the storm. “Indescribable artifacts are peculiar, if not supermassive. Space folds to accommodate the weight. It’s extremely dangerous this close. Very difficult to navigate if you don’t know what you’re doing.”


“And the teachers at the Library taught you how to navigate it?” Percy said.


“No,” Clara said. “But the Library did.”


Percy thought, as the silent wastes streaked by below, a watercolor world of half-real shadows, that maybe he was lost forever. That he was never finding his way back to Diggory, or to anyone. That he was going to wander forever in an endless storm with his friend’s ex-girlfriend. That maybe when he’d flown away from Diggory, he should have said some comforting word, because it was going to be his last and he didn’t even know it. And the wave of sadness was so great from thinking about that that his eyes sparked with lightning in the storm, and his body gleamed bright, and he was a streak of sorrowful light beside Clara in the endless arctic night.


But then, blessed relief, he spotted something below, anything to break up the grey blur of the horizon and the empty sea and the flying snow. It was a silver object, a dot hidden thirty feet beneath the ice. The suit of armor that he had asked Oswald Biggs Botulus to make for him, at the cost of betraying everything he had ever been through. Although to be fair, he thought, you bought the safety and freedom of all of your friends in that same bargain. A lot of good it had done them now.


“There,” he said. The suit was lost forever, but Diggory had not fallen too far away from it. “Right down there.”


Clara descended, and whispered to her spectral hound, and it darted towards the earth below, zipped in spirals of static through the blizzard gusts, and came to stand at one point in the icy crags, barked with a sound like falling thunder.


They touched down a moment later, Clara’s boots skidding as she dismounted the broom, which collected snowflakes in its carved menagerie as it hovered in the wind.


“Diggory?” Percy called, and phased through the ice, sunk into the depths they had been trapped beneath. “I’ve brought help. Are you okay? I’m sorry about…”


He emerged through the ice into a barren hole, beginning to fill with snow. He looked up to find Clara, peering in from above, Dogsmell at her side.


“I don’t think they’re here,” Clara said. “It looks like they carved their way out.”


“Then I know where they’ve gone,” Percy said, tears sparking on his phantasmal face again. “We need to follow them North.”




Interlude 1 - Hiking Alone

Never go hiking alone. There are a great host of dangers that await the nature lovers of the Hallowoods. Some of them are mundane. Uneven ground may quickly transform from difficult to treacherous. You may become trapped in a gorge or ravine. You may find yourself lost without food or water, or be attacked by a wild animal. A friend might have helped you. Now it will take them days to find you.


But there are worse things still in these woods. You may be tripped and hooked by the remaining Froglins and fed to their god or their queen, depending on which sect finds you. You may find yourself standing in the den of a faceless fox or the burrow of a ravenous mole. You may be kidnapped by a society of witches and watch divination rituals carved from your organs. Or you may be pulled into the roots of a Watching tree and your bones gnashed into the earth.


Never go hiking alone. Either a friend may save your life, or the forest will feed twice as well. We go now to one who prefers to travel with company.




Story 2 - Waiting on Alice

“What is taking her so long?” Winona muttered. She sat in the passenger seat of her van, one well-worn by now. The junk-collector’s daughter, Elena, sat in the driver’s seat, one hand draped over the wheel and the other toying with a butterfly knife. Flip. Flip.


“Try honking again,” Winona said.


Elena shrugged. “She would have heard the first time. I can see her rustling around in there.”


“Are you sure that’s her?” said Amelia Abbott, from the back. “Or is it just normal fireflies?”


“It’s not the season for fireflies,” Winona sighed. Her breath was fogging up the window. “It’s too cold.”


“So we’ll give her another minute,” said Amelia. She was a bit older than Elena, with arms covered in self-inflicted tattoos. They had more in common than Winona liked to admit; Amelia had been scarred by Downing Hill, and Winona had a complicated history with the Library as well. Amelia would never quite forgive her for her part in it. Maybe that was why she kept Amelia close to the Friends of Zelda. Someone to hold her accountable.


“I could go in,” squeaked the last occupant of the van, although not the last member of the Friends of Zelda. Membership had grown since the spring, and their mission had grown past Zelda. Ironic, she thought, how things came full circle. She turned to look back. Amelia with her skin like illustrated paper, and Tattery Stabbs, a foot-tall doll with hair of raveled red yarn and skin that Winona suspected was human. It had been Irene’s favorite medium, after all, and she’d been careless with her less polished projects.


“You’d scare all the fireflies out of her,” Winona said. “And it would take another twenty minutes for her to pull herself together. Alice is sensitive.”


“If she’s so sensitive,” Elena mused at the wheel, “why is she invited to this particular mission? Aren’t we going into real danger here?”


“I’m taking the ones who won’t faint at the sight of the Library,” Winona said, and turned in her chair to look across the assembled group. “Elena, for your courage.”


“Oh my courage, is it?” Elena said. “Here I thought it was because I’m the only one who ever gets stuck driving the van around for you.”


“I could drive,” said Amelia from the back.


“I like it when Elena drives,” Winona said. “She avoids the bumps. It helps my bones.”


“I could drive,” said Tattery Stabbs.


“Never again,” said Winona. “If you try I’ll turn you into a pincushion.”


“I did that to a man once,” said Tattery.


“That’s why I’ve brought you,” Winona said. “And Amelia, because you know the Library as well as I do, better even.”


“Please tell me we’re not going in there,” Amelia groaned, and glanced up to her. “Not with this crew.”


“I hope it won’t come to that,” Winona said. “But Zelda is in danger. She’s going back to that Library. And she’s more likely to get there the longer we sit here waiting. Here.”


She put a hand on her khopesh, and. Don’t you do it, you old crone. Not for something so trivial. Use your earthly feet. How dare you…


Before Winona could begin the incantation, though, thankfully, there was a tap on the door, and then another, glittering fireflies landing on the frosted van windows. The side door slid open, and Amelia shuffled over as a corpse climbed in.


“What took you so long?” Winona said.


“I’m seeing things,” said Alice. She was a skeletal sort of woman, or a woman sort of skeleton. Her skin was almost as leathery as Winona’s, and points of green light buzzed in her eyes as much as they buzzed in the rest of her bug-infested self. “There are hundreds of paths forward, spiralling. Twist like embers. Paper crackles. A scream. I am trying to make sense of the poetry I’m seeing.”


“If I have learned anything from having visions of the future,” Winona said, and pursed her lips, “It is that you cannot allow them to direct you in the present. If all of your… bugs are in the van, let us drive. We might just reach her in time.”



Marketing - Day In

Lady Ethel:

I’m still where I was. The nursery room. I thought about leaving today. To keep marching on, come rain or come snow, for those accursed woods. But somehow I can’t quite bring myself to leave. I’m cuddled up in the corner. Watching the snow drift outside. It’s changed from dark to light to dark again, but the snow hasn’t stopped. It’s grey in here, unlit. It feels like what I deserve, somehow.


What am I going to do, when I feel well enough to do anything at all again? I tell myself over and over, I’m going to visit a friend. A friend! I cling to the thought. I have a hard time remembering him now, honestly. Whether he has a beard or not. Old or middle aged. Whether he was kind or false. What that big instrument he wanted parts for was called. I just remember that he liked me. What if he saw me like this? Would he still like me? I don’t like me.


It’s dark again, anyway. So I might as well stay a little longer. Wait for someone to open the door.



Story 2, Continued - Waiting on Alice

I feel badly to kick someone when they are down. Especially when they were a low sort to begin with. Every night, the question of how far a Lady can plummet is answered with a surprising, and resounding, ‘further’. What can be said that would be more insulting than the way she already lives?


We return now to Winona Carline.


I hate it when you do this. It would be best if you destroyed that abyssal stone, freed the last of me. Freed me from the reminder of that unpleasant time. But here we are. You whisper the words, and I feel the power go out from me, manifest a single eye. So often, I am the one peering through yours, and yet here you are, peering through mine. And you search, miles ahead of your little van, where Elena drives. You search for a friend, withdraw your palm at the first sight of misfortune.


“Keep an eye out,” Winona said, and reached out suddenly to grab Elena’s forearm. The girl jumped, almost skidded on the icy roads.


“Don’t do that,” Elena said.


“There is a crash ahead,” Winona said. “A mile or two. I think it is Zelda’s truck. Please be careful.”


Elena did as she was bidden, and the van slowed, caught the glint of a vehicle on the highway far in advance. It was a van, sleek as a scarab beetle in their headlights. The green glint of the crashed truck peeked from a ditch nearby, half blanketed in snowflakes already.


“Uh, this does not look good,” Elena said. She pulled the van up beside the black armored vehicle; Winona could spot crates in a pile, an abandoned campfire.


“Embers,” said Alice. “Burning out.”


“Are there dead people?” said Tattery. “How much of ‘em are left? I can’t see.”


Winona disembarked the van, sword at her side, robes billowing in the winter breeze. She cursed the cold climate returning, worse this year than it had been in decades. She cursed the library. And she cursed that her friends could not stop throwing themselves into danger. The van door slid open; the corpse with the fireflies, and the corpse dressed like a child’s toy, and the woman who was not a corpse yet peeking from the darkness of her van.


“Is she here?” said Amelia. “Winona?”


“I don’t think so,” Winona said, peering in through the broken window of the truck. The seats were snow-touched, empty. The fire had been put out, the crates of equipment emptied. It appeared that Zelda had made new friends. Zelda was good at that. She did not have to use Nikignik’s stolen eye to know where they had gone from here.


“What did you find there?” Winona said. Elena had left the driver’s seat to poke and prod among the crates.


“Nothing much,” Elena said, pocketing a hefty tactical knife with guarded knuckles. The girl was wrapped in a thick shawl to keep out the weather, and tried the handle of the black van, found it locked. “Wonder what’s in here.”


“Let’s not loot much until we know who we’re dealing with,” Winona said, and rubbed her hands together to keep the blood moving in them. “Alice, are you alright to walk in this weather?”


“We brought a coat for a reason,” said Alice, and sure enough, there was a glow from inside the sleeves of her long fur coat, damp hair strung to her skull.


“Please tell me you’re not going after the Library,” said Amelia, shaking her head. “They have my brother, you know. I can’t go against them.”


“How much do you like your brother?” said Tattery. “I should know before I start stabbing.”


“If we hurry,” Winona said, and stepped down past the ruins of the green truck, “we might still catch her. I do not intend to visit the Library unless they have her already. But when we began this group, it was to find Zelda, and to help anyone who disappears in these woods. To remember them. She’s about to make a terrible mistake. And if she does, I will be there right behind her to try and pull her out.”


“You know as well as I do,” said Amelia, tromping into the snow behind her, “that some people don’t get a second chance to escape Downing Hill.”


“Be that as it may,” Winona sniffed, and pressed on into the darkness of the forest. “We have to try.”




Interlude 2 - Eternal Lie

I hope this makes a difference, dreamer. That is what I contemplate now as we draw closer to a kind of end. Or, a kind of beginning. I am not sure if these actions I have taken have been too much or too little. But the hour grows late, and the spring fast approaches. We only have to walk a little more, now, before we reach the north, true north, and can walk no further that direction.


And yet, just as the ones we follow grow unsteady on their feet, I am so ready to fall. A collapse from weariness. A convenient tranquility and an escape from what is to come. How much easier it would be if I did not have to oversee the destruction of Marolmar’s last great work. If I could cover all my eyes in ignorance and leave the mortal kind to do what they will. But already I have tampered. There will be more to do, I think, before this is over. And if I were to grant myself a moment’s rest, I might as easily sleep a thousand years as for a day. That is not dead which can eternal lie. And eternal lie sounds quite appealing, at some times.


Maybe some day. Perhaps when all of this is over—your planet, I mean—then I will have nothing left to do but slumber. I am not convinced I wish to go back and guard the gates. It is an exhausting thing, to try and find a purpose for yourself.


We go now to one tired of walking.



Story 3 - Out Of Eternity

Hector was not averse to the idea of dying. On the contrary, he had thought about it daily for the better portion of the last ten years. Wondered as he woke up each day, and patted his dogs, and began their day of hunting and salvage, if he was going to go to sleep that night. Whether he was going to get rifled down by some passing raider not unlike himself, or dragged into the surface of a bog by a body that played dead a little too well, or torn up by some wild and nameless beast. And in each of those scenarios, he pictured himself becoming a salvage of his own, pockets lined with a few nice trinkets for whoever happened to come after him, scrounging amongst his bones for treasure. And eventually, being pulled in, torn apart, rendered into mulch by the forest.


He had not pictured that last part happening while he was still alive.


But he could feel it crawling. Roots beneath the wooden bark that comprised his left arm, left leg below the knee. Reaching up through his skin, curling deeper into his insides. Trying to save his body from total collapse. Trying to become him completely.


Hector lay, half consumed, in the past. At least, he assumed it must be, because he had been to the house before. Zelda’s cabin on the lake side, decorated with candles and lace doilies and porcelain figurines and the whole nine yards. It was a few hazy conversations before he was able to really put together that it was not just sideways because of his vertigo; it was sideways because the house itself sat at a slope, and the black water lapped indoors where the back end of the rooms and the basement stairs had been, and she had been smart to get out of there after all.


Something was touching him, something that he could not see, and it dragged a damp cloth across the muddy stretch of his chest, the jagged surfaces where the bark peeled up from the hairy skin. In a brief moment of cogency, he lunged to grab it with his good hand, managed to seize a wrist. There was a yelp of surprise, and a bowl of water dropped.


“Who are ya,” Hector said. “Is this Zelda’s place. Why’re we here.”


“Excuse me, sir, that is my hand,” said a voice. He would have thought it was someone right over him, but he could only see the ceiling, and that troubled him. “Please let go.”


Hector did, although because the strength in his arm gave out, and not because he wanted to.


“My name is Nolan,” said the voice from nowhere. “I live in this house, me and my partner Ricou. We were out traveling up on the mountain when our friend the Quilt brought you to us. I’ve been taking care of you for two days now.”


“Where are you?” Hector said.


“I’m right here,” Nolan said, and he felt an impact on his shoulder of bark. It was probably meant to be a gentle pat, but everything ached to high heaven. “You’re not going to be able to see me, probably. That’s just how I am. Please don’t be frightened of Ricou, either. He’s the big green one. He can be a little loud sometimes. He doesn’t mean to be.”


“Ugh,” Hector said in acknowledgement and agony. With waking up came all sorts of unpleasant subcutaneous feelings. “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.”


“I don’t think you’re in a good enough condition to go anywhere else,” said Nolan, and put the towel away. “Just rest, if you can.”


“Out where I was walking,” Hector said. “Beyond the veil. I’ve never seen stars like that. I got old, with the earth, and young again. It spun in circles.”


“Like I said, rest,” Nolan said, and he could only hear the creak of the damp floorboards as the invisible man rose.


“Be honest,” Hector said, spoke up. His throat was parched. “Do you think I’m going to make it?”


“Yes,” Nolan lied. “You’re going to be fine.”


Hector laid back against the cot, and ached. He hadn’t been meant to make it back. He felt displaced, ripped out of eternity and thrown back into time with meaning. A bad fit. Disintegrating. The roots were doing everything they could. Peeling. Working. Replacing. It wouldn’t be enough.


He closed his eyes, and tried to rest. Couldn’t sleep. Could only listen to the humming of Nolan in the kitchen, and the lapping of the water on the walls of the lake house, and a scratching sound from somewhere deep below the earth.



Outro - Chasms

Chasms. You will pull yourself out of here. It may take days, or weeks, or years. Some abysses require more care to escape than others. But you will get out. Clamber free of the darkness and with one final lunge roll onto the free earth again.


That is not to say that is the end of your climb. I wish it was, dreamer. I wish that our journey in life was a single difficult ascent, relished once triumphed. A period of struggle and the rest to enjoy. But even as you take your first steps, you will find that there are other cliffs to scale. That the abyss is deeper and full of hidden passages. That it is easy to fall again.


The hope is not in one day escaping our personal pits of tartarus. The hope is in the climb. Gradually we overcome. Daily we fight for air and upwards. We strive for the sunlight.


Until you no longer rise, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting abysmally for your return to the Hallowoods.




The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Abyssal Heart' 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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